In honour of this week’s release of the 35th anniversary edition of Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band – one of the most criminally underrated albums in the history of hard rock – I hereby pay homage to a few of the genre’s unjustly neglected classics. My list is by no means intended to represent the ‘Most Underrated Albums in Rock’; rather, as the recurrence of certain artists suggests, it reflects my feelings about a lot of the music I grew up on . . . along with a little of what I’ve been listening to lately.
10. Kingdom Come, In Your Face (1989): Harshly ridiculed for their creative debt to Led Zeppelin – their fate sealed by disparaging remarks from Jimmy Page himself – Kingdom Come remain one of the most unfairly overlooked bands of the late 1980s. While it is true that Hamburg-born frontman Lenny Wolf’s howl was spookily redolent of the young Robert Plant, and their punchy bluesy riffs bore more than a passing resemblance to those of their influential but criminally overrated forebears, Kingdom Come can no more be dismissed as ‘Led Zeppelin clones’ than any number of big-haired wannabe stadium stompers of their era (and, given how much Led Zeppelin themselves ‘borrowed’ from certain elder blues statesmen – not to mention the Jeff Beck Group – it seems rather churlish of them to object to later bands copping certain ingredients from their musical elixir). Kingdom Come’s eponymous debut was, in fact, an outstanding slab of dynamic, bluesy hard rock, and on its follow up, In Your Face, they raised their game in the songwriting stakes, delivering a supremely consistent set of swaggering anthems, including the pulsating single ‘Do You Like It?’, and my personal favourite, the sublime ‘Who Do You Love?’
9. Rush, Test for Echo (1996): There are several albums in the Rush back catalogue that may justly be termed underrated; the epic-laden early effort, about which the band remain unduly embarrassed, Caress of Steel (1975), and the gorgeous, synth-heavy Signals (1982) spring immediately to mind. Due to the timing of its release in the mid-nineties (something of a wilderness period for ‘classic rock’ acts) and prior to the lengthy hiatus that followed drummer Neil Peart’s bereavements, Test For Echo has perhaps been lost to view more than most Rush albums. Not that the band members themselves are blind to its virtues. The fragile ‘Resist’ has been included in their live set in gorgeous acoustic form, while ‘Driven’ has proven a perfect solo showcase for frontman Geddy Lee’s mind-blowing skills on the bass. Less heralded tracks that remain firm favourites of mine include the witty ‘Dog Years’, and the luscious ‘Half the World’, with its shimmering, multi-layered guitars. The atmospheric title track is one more reason to make sure you don’t miss this compelling set from Canada’s finest.
8. Uriah Heep, Conquest (1980): A revamped Uriah Heep re-emerged after John Lawton’s disappointing swansong (1978’s Fallen Angel) with a new frontman, who continues to sharply divide opinion amongst the band’s fans. 23 year old John Sloman was dubbed in certain press outlets ‘the new Robert Plant’ – a comparison that surely owed more to his penchant for bare chested preening than to any more than superficial vocal similarities; a Welsh Daryl Hall would be closer to the mark. And, true to that comparison, the soulful influences that the new singer brought to the table, both in terms of vocal style and at the time uncredited (due to contractual complications) songwriting contributions, would result in the new look Heep delivering an eclectic set that left long-standing fans as confused as Deep Purple fans were by Stormbringer, back in 1974. Sloman’s style, particularly as applied to the band’s classic material, irritated more than Heep’s diehard fans, prompting keyboard player and principle songwriter Ken Hensley to leave in a huff after a decade-long association. Sloman’s tenure with the band was likely always going to be brief and, after soldiering on with Greg Dechert filling Hensley’s shoes for a while, the band was dissolved. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding the record, there is much to admire about Conquest; the performances from Sloman and bassist Trevor Bolder in particular are consistently impressive, with the new singer sounding fantastic on melancholic ballads such as ‘It Ain’t Easy’ and ‘Fools’, while the whole band delivers a performance of breathless intensity on the storming opener, ‘No Return’. Sloman was never destined for the kind of mega-stardom tipped for him by some at the outset of his career, but creatively, he continued to deliver the goods long after his unhappy association with Uriah Heep came to an end. His first solo album, Disappearances Can Be Deceptive (1989) was a flawless collection of polished, radio-friendly pop rock nuggets featuring fine performances from, amongst many other excellent musicians, fretless bass supremo Pino Palladino. And Dark Matter (2003), further showcased his ability to absorb and mix up musical influences, marrying indie rock stylings with blistering blues rock, in a fresh and strikingly contemporary fashion.
7. Black Sabbath, Technical Ecstasy (1976): Often paired with the original Sabbath line-up’s stunningly lacklustre swansong, Never Say Die (1978), this curio is almost as neglected as the band’s mid-eighties output. Yet, while its stylistic schizophrenia is certainly symptomatic of an identity crisis that beset the band through the protracted implosion of the original line-up (prior to their brilliant, Ronnie Dio-inspired reinvention), that is where the similarities with Never Say Die end. Technical Ecstasy is by no means one of Black Sabbath’s finest offerings, but its standards of songwriting and performance should spare it from being regarded as one of their worst. Evincing the same adventurous spirit that fired its brilliantly decadent predecessors Sabotage (1975) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), with a knob-twiddling zeal that had attained to obsessive proportions (hence the title), the album contains much to recommend it besides its most traditionally Sabbathy closing cut, ‘Dirty Women’ (upon which ‘classic’ status was belatedly conferred, by its regular inclusion in the sets of the reunion concerts that were inaugurated in the late 1990s). The double-punch of gritty opener ‘Back Street Kids’, followed by the gothic melodrama of ‘You Won’t Change Me’ certainly gets things off to a rollicking start, and the merits of the next track – a laid back, Beatlesy ballad entitled ‘It’s Alright’, sung by drummer Bill Ward – were not lost on a certain W. Axl Rose, who performed the song solo as a prelude to ‘November Rain’, on the Guns’ Use Your Illusion tour. The band’s struggle to forge an identity beyond the occult-inspired satanic image of their early years certainly resulted in their taking some stylistic steps too far for many fans on this album, but the aforementioned tracks alone attest that guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler had more than enough creative juice in the tank to deliver a worthy successor to Sabotage. And while Iommi’s increasing fascination with studio jiggery-pokery might have bored Ozzy Osbourne shitless (epitomising a breakdown of relations that would result in the singer finally being fired after the Never Say Die saga), the fruits of his technical ecstasy actually did pay rich dividends – give the album due attention, and you’ll be unearthing fresh surprises in the guitar parts for years.
6. Deep Purple, Who Do We Think We Are? (1973): The album which preceded the resignation of Ian Gillan, and the retirement of Deep Purple’s most celebrated line-up until their 1984 reunion, continues to be treated dismissively, as if the catastrophic breakdown of relations between band members must inevitably have been reflected in substandard music. After opening cut ‘Woman From Tokyo’ was laid down, an argument over Gillan’s vocal delivery of ‘Painted Horse’ (destined never to see the light of day until the studio out-take cropped up as a bonus track on the album’s remaster), had effectively split the Purple party into two camps, with Blackmore sulking on his own, and recording his guitar parts sans interaction with his bandmates. And while ‘Woman From Tokyo’, the album’s most celebrated track, is undoubtedly excellent, it does sound oddly detached from the rest of the introspective and, by Purple’s standards, laid back set. It is probably these qualities that have led to its being overlooked and underrated – along with the fact that Blackmore is something of a passenger on the album, producing nothing comparable to the legendary fireworks of the previous year’s Machine Head. Blackmore’s tendency to blow hot and cold, though, was a recurring feature of his tenure with Deep Purple; notice how the almost demonic intensity of his performances on In Rock (1970) was followed by the more insouciant, but in their way equally compelling, leads that lit up Fireball (1971), and how the fired-up Blackmore of Burn (1973) gave way to the apathetic (but still sporadically brilliant) Blackmore of Stormbringer (1974). In the case of WDWTWA?, Blackmore’s taking a back seat has the silver lining of allowing Jon Lord to step to the fore, which is no great hardship for the listener. After years of not getting this album, I find these days that it is one of the Purple albums I return to again and again, appreciating more and more its refined musicianship and admirable adventurousness – as Lord suggested at the time, it took a certain amount of chutzpah for Deep Purple to close an album with a song with no solos and barely a chorus, but that is exactly what they did with the wonderful ‘Our Lady’. Another personal highlight for me is the insanely catchy ‘Smooth Dancer’ (replete with Gillan’s lyrical stabs at Blackmore) – and I very much appreciated the brief reappearance of ‘Mary Long’ in the band’s live set, in the Steve Morse years, as a welcome tip of the hat to a neglected classic.
5. UFO, Force It (1975): Having introduced rock fans to the stellar talents of Teutonic guitar prodigy Michael Schenker on Phenomenon (1974), featuring enduring anthems ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Doctor, Doctor’, the venerably British UFO were not about to squander their opportunity to transform themselves from pub rock journeymen to hard rock heroes. At just the second time of asking with Schenker in tow, they delivered their first of many gold-plated albums. Like its successor, No Heavy Petting (1976), Force It has been rather overshadowed by the outstanding hat-trick of classic albums – Lights Out (1977), Obsession (1978) and the stunning live swansong, Strangers in the Night (1979) – that sealed their place in rock ‘n’ roll folklore. For anyone who gets the band, Force It, too, has everything. The piledriving intensity of live staples ‘Let It Roll’ and ‘Shoot Shoot’ gives way to ‘High Flyer’, the kind of gentle but muscular ballad for which the band are justly celebrated, and, after the fluffy ‘Love Lost Love’ (a fine vehicle for Schenker fireworks), the listener is treated to two tracks which show the band – and the young guitarist – at the peak of their powers: ‘Out in the Street’ and ‘Mother Mary’. Here, the greatest hallmarks of Schenker’s lead playing are wonderfully in evidence; the blistering aggression, balanced by flawless melodic instincts, and that exquisite, distinctive, tone. Closing cut ‘This Kid’s’, segueing into Schenker’s psychedelic instrumental, ‘Between the Walls’, concludes proceedings in characteristically dramatic fashion – an intoxicating finale to a heady musical trip.
4. Van Halen, Van Halen II (1978): Certainly not an album that goes unappreciated by Van Halen fans, I have included Van Halen II here primarily because of the extent to which it has been overshadowed by the band’s debut. II was the first Van Halen album I ever heard, and it remains my favourite. The fact that the album opens on a downer, with a moody cover of ‘You’re No Good’ (eccentric cover versions being a recurring feature of Van Halen in the David Lee Roth years) only enhances the impact of ‘Dance the Night Away’, one of the breeziest slices of pop rock ever to appear on an album by bona fide hard rock legends. From hereonin it’s party time, and, for my money, the band deliver a more focussed and consistent set than they did on their debut (classic tracks aplenty notwithstanding). The album features some of the finest playing of Eddie Van Halen’s illustrious career, from the electrifying breaks that grace ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor’ and ‘Outta Love Again’, to the impudent virtuosity of acoustic solo instrumental ‘Spanish Fly’, to the astonishing false harmonics that make a sparkling jewel of the miraculous intro to ‘Women in Love’. Take the change out of that if you dare.
3. Warrant, Ultraphobic (1995): Pretty much every album released by Warrant – including their excellent Jani Lane-less 2006 opus Born Again – is, by definition, underrated. Their place in cultural history assured by the salacious frat boy anthem ‘Cherry Pie’ (and the bouncy charms of Bobbi Brown, employed to distracting effect in the music video), the songwriting talents of Jani Lane have never really gained the recognition they merited. Scoring hits with some of the most memorable anthems and power ballads of the late eighties, Warrant appeared to be on a fast track to – and surely deserved – the kind of staggering success enjoyed by lesser bands such as Bon Jovi. Grunge, however, saw to it that their star was destined to blaze but briefly. Lane and his cohorts responded supremely to the cultural sea change heralded by the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with the powerfully heavy and moody Dog Eat Dog (1992), arguably the finest album of their career. Their effective relegation to the second tier of rock music’s elite, and the critical disparagement that went with it, however, did not make for a happy camp, and, after the departure of key members (with Lane himself having briefly left at one point), a new look Warrant reconvened and did their best to adapt to the changing musical landscape with Ultraphobic. On paper, the idea of Warrant absorbing grunge and alternative influences is about as palatable as Ozzy Osbourne putting out a country album (I shouldn’t have written that; it’ll probably happen now), but, against the odds, it works – the reason being the consistent quality of songwriting that Lane and his bandmates are able to maintain, rising above any suggestions of cheap bandwagon hopping. Tracks like ‘Undertow’ and ‘Followed’, along with the title track and sometime live favourite ‘Family Picnic’, are amongst the punchiest and heaviest material the band ever recorded, while the blissful ‘High’ offers a marvellous take on the power ballad for the post-grunge generation. The album closes with a beautiful acoustic ballad entitled ‘Stronger Now’ that was so far removed from Ultraphobic stylistically that Lane did not want to include it – but that effectively serves as a deliciously delicate coda to one of the mid-nineties’ hidden gems.
2. Black Sabbath, Seventh Star (1986): Like certain others on this list, this underrated mid-eighties treasure has steadily become less underrated as the years have gone by, in large part due to fans’ increasing willingness to judge it on its own merits, rather than as a Black Sabbath album. Intended as a debut solo album after the dissolution of the bizarre Ian Gillan fronted Sabbath, Tony Iommi delivered a slick set of blues-laced hard rock anthems more akin to eighties stadium fillers like Whitesnake and The Scorpions than to the doom-laden strains of Birmingham’s finest. His record company, however, insisted on the Black Sabbath name being retained, leading to the foolish compromise of the album coming out under the banner of ‘Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi’. The guitarist was also thwarted in his aspiration to feature a plethora of noted guest vocalists on the album, and had to suffer the hardship of having Glenn Hughes sing all of its tracks. Seventh Star, like the stunning Hughes/Thrall (1982) shows that not everything Hughes did between Deep Purple’s ignominious break-up and his cleaning up of his act in the early nineties, was a washout. Thunderous opener ‘In For the Kill’ and moody ballad ‘No Stranger to Love’ (released as a single, and brilliantly reinterpreted by Glenn Hughes for his solo live set) stand up with the best mainstream rock music of the mid-eighties, while the lumbering, ‘Kashmir’-esque title track, makes sure that diehard Sabbath fans don’t feel completely left out. The pulsating, riff-driven ‘Danger Zone’ is another highlight, and the grinding blues of ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ (surely one of the songs originally envisioned with Hughes in mind), allows the singer to really stretch out and show us what he’s made of.
While Hughes’s performances on the album are uniformly excellent, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that he was called upon to go out on tour in support of the record, under the banner of Black Sabbath. At the best of times, Hughes would be about as fitting a singer for the band that gave us ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Warpigs’ as Kurt Cobain would be for Aerosmith, and, in his coked-out mid-eighties state, he was really in no condition to be fronting any band out on tour. After a handful of dates, the association was severed, leaving Iommi to rebuild the Sabbath brand with remarkable pluck, first with the superb, sadly deceased, American vocalist Ray Gillen, and subsequently with the too little appreciated Tony Martin. The unlikely pairing of Iommi and Hughes was far from finished, though, recording an album’s worth of unfinished out-takes in 1996 that finally saw the light of day as The DEP Sessions in 2005, and finally laying the Seventh Star demons to rest with the excellent Fused in 2008.
1. Deep Purple, Come Taste the Band (1975): After the disappointment of the idiosyncratic funk and soul-infused Stormbringer (1974), which precipitated the departure of the imperious Ritchie Blackmore, it seemed unlikely that Deep Purple would continue at all, never mind come back with one of the most powerful albums of their career. Yet, in their inimitably dysfunctional way, that is precisely what they did. In the mercurially gifted young American guitarist Tommy Bolin, Glenn Hughes found something of a musical soulmate and, divested of Blackmore’s inhibiting puritanism, the new-look Purple were able to pursue new directions unbound, ultimately delivering an album that was much more purposeful and dynamic than its patchy predecessor. Hughes was free to indulge his Stevie Wonder fantasies to the utmost on ‘This Time Around’ (co-written with Jon Lord in about half an hour, and segueing into Bolin’s prickly homage to Gershwin, the instrumental ‘Owed to G’), and the fruits of the tragically short-lived partnership between Hughes and Bolin were delightfully represented by the joyful funk uplift of lead single ‘Gettin’ Tighter’. The much-vaunted funk and soul influences of Deep Purple Marks III and IV, while pronounced on Come Taste the Band, have tended to obscure the fact that it is, fundamentally, a hard rock album – and a surprisingly hard-hitting one at that. It’s often forgotten how low-down-mean-and-nasty this version of the band could git, as witness ‘Love Child’ and ‘The Dealer’. Tracks like these, along with ‘I Need Love’ (which points the way to early Whitesnake) show that it wasn’t just Hughes and Bolin who got to cut loose in Deep Purple Mark IV – Coverdale has, perhaps, never sounded better than on this album. And barnstorming opener ‘Comin’ Home’ puts glaringly into perspective how much the previous line-up of the band had lost the plot when it came to rocking out (title track aside) on Stormbringer, while the brooding theatrics of closing cut, ‘You Keep On Moving’ – actually written before Bolin joined the band, but difficult to imagine without his intense playing – bring the album to a mesmerising conclusion.
While Deep Purple Mark IV proved that they were more than capable of laying down some of the finest music ever to go out under the Deep Purple name – a fact that is gaining belated recognition; see the richly deserved 10/10 review of the anniversary edition of CTTB in the current issue of Classic Rock magazine – it is, sadly, undeniable, that one thing they weren’t quite so good at was actually being Deep Purple. The unresolved problem of sharing lead vocal responsibilities between two such exuberant performers as Coverdale and Hughes persisted, and the difficulties of integrating the band’s ‘classic’ material from the Gillan/Glover years into the set, and presenting a coherent musical package that reflected a sustained identity, became even more pronounced. While live performances of Come Taste tracks could be nothing short of sensational (check out ‘Gettin’ Tighter’ live in California, on On the Wings of a Russian Foxbat, or ‘Love Child’ on This Time Around: Live in Tokyo), performances of earlier tracks (including, sometimes, Mark III material) were notably less convincing. The lethargic vocal performances of Hughes and Coverdale on Gillan tracks speak volumes about their attitudes towards the Deep Purple legacy, to the point that it is impossible not to reflect on what a fitting choice ‘Lazy’ was to retain from Mark II. The well-documented personal problems that beset the band, especially as regards the struggles of Bolin and Hughes with substance abuse, clearly took a toll on performances, as did the refusal of many fans to accept Bolin (or, one suspects, anyone) as a replacement for Ritchie Blackmore. Indeed, Hughes’s shenanigans even had an impact on the recording of the album, as is detailed in this month’s major Classic Rock retrospective – the singer/bassist was sent home before the album was completed, and came close to being fired, leading Bolin to play bass (and Lordy to help out on backing vocals!) on ‘Comin’ Home’, and sing the middle eight of ‘The Dealer’.
Within a year of a disastrous show in Liverpool’s bringing the curtain down on Deep Purple, Tommy Bolin would be dead. It is by the moments when they soared that this band, of such incredible potential, should be remembered, and, now that the lavish 35th anniversary edition of CTTB has hit the shelves, we are better placed than ever to remember them for the right reasons. The remasters, and especially, the superb Kevin Shirley remixes on the second disc, allow us to hear Bolin’s smoking leads and sizzling rhythm work – damn, the kid could work a riff – with greater clarity than ever before, while the inclusion of a breathtaking, previously unreleased Bolin/Paice studio jam heightens further the eerie sensation of being reacquainted with a long lost friend.
Good to see you again, bro. Hope it rocks up there.