Atomic Rooster – “Sleeping For Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974” (2017) review
Atomic Rooster – Sleeping For Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974 (Esoteric Recordings, 2017)
Formed by former Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (“Fire”) members Vincent Crane (organ, piano, synthesizer, vocals) and Carl Palmer (drums) in 1969, and joined quickly by bassist, vocalist, flutist, Nick Graham, who answered an advert in Melody Maker Magazine, Atomic Rooster would go on to record five albums and a handful of singles in their original lifespan, 1970 to 1974. “Sleeping For Years” gathers together the entire studio recordings of the band, in its various incarnations, during the period in an incredible four disc box set on Cherry Red Records’ Esoteric Recordings imprint.
The original trio of Crane, Palmer and Graham, released their debut s/t LP in February, 1970 on the B & C Records label, with Graham handling the lead vocal duties. Consisting of eight tracks, seven originals written almost entirely by Crane and a cover of John Mayall’s “Broken Wings” the album serves as a wonderful example of what would come to be known as progressive rock, and was one of few rock albums released by a band with no guitarist. Among the highlights of “Atomic Rooster” are the album opener “Friday the 13th” a hard rocking number with Crane’s organ on display and featuring an incredible drum performance by Palmer as well as gorgeous vocals by Graham. The tune was re-recorded by the band, after ex-Andromeda and The Attack guitarist, John (Du)Cann had replaced Graham, with Crane implementing usage of bass pedals, and the then known as Cann, assuming lead vocal duties. In the event, the band re-recorded three of the album’s tracks for inclusion on its US release on the Elektra label. Another memorable tune from “Atomic Rooster” is the seven minute Crane composition “Winter” which includes Palmer’s usage of a glockenspiel for added percussive effect, as had been the case with Ginger Baker on Cream’s best selling double album “Wheels Of Fire.” One other tune of special note from Atomic Rooster’s debut is “S.L.Y.” with its trippy backward taped intro. This tune, like “Friday the 13th” was re-recorded by the band with Cann on guitar for US release, the change in personnel resulting in a dramatic change in the band’s sound, but also leading to ego clashes and musical direction differences between Crane and Cann that would haunt the band throughout the latter’s tenure, with Crane always imposing himself as the band’s leader and ultimate decisions always being left up to him, a bone of contention that music listeners and critics alike carry on until this very day. Disc one of “Sleeping For Years” is comprised of the debut album, the three tracks re-recorded for the LPs US release, two 1970 demos featuring Carl Palmer, and the a-side of the band’s first single, the John Cann penned “Tomorrow Night” which was released on 45 in January, 1971 and included in an alternate version on the band’s sophomore album.
Disc two opens with the eight tracks making up Atomic Rooster’s second album, the critically acclaimed “Death Walks Behind You” which was released in September, 1970, and includes the previously mentioned alternate take of “Tomorrow Night” featuring a run time of four minutes, a full thirty seconds longer than the single version. The highlight of the album, however, is unquestionably the seven and a half minute title track, written by Crane and Cann. The song is a hard rocking number, featuring guitar work bringing to mind Chicago’s classic “25 or 6 to 4” and Crane’s organ reminiscent of Jon Lord’s famous Hammond organ on Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.” “Death Walks Behind You” features a relentless riff with Cann’s guitar slashing and thrashing, Crane’s insistent bass pedals, and a real drum kit thrashing by future-Bullet and Hard Stuff drummer, Paul Hammond, who had replaced Carl Palmer, the latter deciding he could not pass up an offer to join keyboard genius Keith Emerson and bassist/guitarist/vocalist Greg Lake in the legendary progressive rock band, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. “Death Walks Behind You” also contains the five minute Vincent Crane original “VUG” an instrumental, which brings to mind how ELP would have sounded if a guitarist of Cann’s ability had been among their members. Filled with incredible string bending and wah wah guitar courtesy of Cann as well as amazing work on his Hammond organ by Crane, and Paul Hammond all the while beating his drum kit into submission, the track is truly unforgettable with large doses of feedback tossed in as a bonus. The disc is filled out by the inclusion of “Play The Game” the b-side of “Tomorrow Night” another hard rocker featuring an intense riff by Cann and impressive drum rolls courtesy of Hammond, with Crane’s organ, at first almost imperceptible, playing a most impressive role in the performance. Next up is the single-only a-side, “Devil’s Answer,” a June 1971 release, written and sung by Cann, and featuring horns that accompany Cann’s massive guitar riff and jaw dropping solo. The disc is fleshed out with the first half of the band’s third LP, “In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster” which hit record stores in August of 1971. The third album included tunes written by Crane with future band member Ric Parnell, who would replace Paul Hammond behind the band’s drum kit for its fourth and fifth albums. “In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster” opens with a Crane/Parnell tune “Breakthrough” driven by Crane’s piano and Hammond’s drums along with Cann’s ever present massive guitar riffs. A hard rocker, the tune does have its mellower moments which feature Crane’s piano to the fore and the vocals on this tune and the entire album are handled by Pete French, who was brought in to make the band a quartet, as Crane felt Atomic Rooster needed someone more talented than Cann to handle the lead vocals, another point of contention between Crane and Cann, and arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back resulting in Cann departing the band before its fourth album was recorded. Another tune of special note from the band’s third LP is the Crane semi-autobiographical “A Spoon Full Of Bromide Helps The Pulse Go Down” a four and a half minute instrumental driven mainly by Crane on piano and Hammond organ, and Cann’s ever present wah wah guitar. This track brings disc two to an end.
Disc three opens with the remaining four tracks from “In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster” beginning with the haunting “Black Snake” a Crane/Parnell composition, a six minute look into the tormented mind of Crane, reminiscent in that area of “Green Manalishi” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac masterpiece and the last single recorded by Green and the original FM. “Black Snake” is a subdued tune, with Crane’s piano and Cann’s guitar leading the way, joined by Pete French’s poignant vocals. Also of special note is Cann’s “Head In The Sky” which showcases the musical virtuosity of both Crane and Cann and contains one of the latter’s most memorable guitar solos as a member of Atomic Rooster. Following the “In Hearing Of” tracks is a version of “Devil’s Answer” featuring vocals by Pete French, replacing those of Cann, and included on the US version of the album. I find both versions quite pleasant, although Crane may have been correct in that French did possess a more versatile voice than Cann. However, musical beauty is in the ear of the beholder, so I will leave final judgment up to the listener. Next up are the ten tracks that make up the band’s fourth LP “Made In England” and features a much different band lineup than its predecessor. Cann had departed and was replaced by Steve Bolton on lead guitar, French was gone, the incredibly talented Chris Farlowe having been brought in to handle lead vocals, and the previously mentioned Parnell was now a full fledged member, replacing Hammond on drums. The personnel changes resulted in a much mellower, somewhat funk influenced sound from the band, quite a change from the Cann years, but quite pleasant nonetheless, at least in my opinion. The difference in sound is apparent from the beginning of the album. Its opener “Time Take My Life” a Crane composition, features a gentle guitar intro from Bolton and strings to accompany Crane’s organ. Chris Farlowe’s delicate vocals are well suited for the song, which contains a wonderful Hammond interlude by Crane, giving the tune an almost jazz fusion vibe. “Stand By Me” continues the funk influenced sound and features wonderful wah wah guitar by Bolton and more wonderful vocals from Farlowe. The album brings to mind many possible influences on the band. “Little Bit Of Inner Air” for instance, with its floating wah wah and feedback drenched guitar brings Spirit to mind immediately. “People You Can’t Trust” opens with Crane’s organ reminiscent of ELP, while Bolton’s wah wah and feedback bring Randy California and Spirit to mind once again. “Inreoduction/Breathless” has gorgeous piano work and roaring wah wah guitar by Bolton bringing the Nicky Hopkins years with Quicksilver Messenger Service to one’s attention. “All In Satan’s Name” a Parnell tune features Crane’s organ with visions of Jon Lord and Deep Purple again apparent. The album’s closer “Close Your Eyes” is a mid-tempo number, with piano intro and funk influenced Farlowe vocals not unlike those of Joe Cocker during his Mad Dogs And Englishmen period. All in all, “Made In England” shows a band in transition, but capable of incredible versatility. This brings disc three to a close.
The fourth and final disc opens with the eight tracks that compose the band’s fifth and final album of the 1970s, “Nice ‘n’ Greasy.” With the replacement of guitarist Bolton by John Goodsall, who for some reason appears under the pseudonym, Johnny Mandala, Atomic Rooster returns to a much heavier, guitar oriented sound. The album opener “All Across The Country” a Mandala composition, features a heavy riff and an incredible solo by Mandala, with Crane contributing wonderful performances on organ and electric piano. Next up is a memorable tune “Save Me” written by Crane, and featuring horns, but dominated by Mandala’s wah wah guitar and another killer solo. A cover tune “Voodoo In You” written by Jackie Avory, has even more heavy guitar work by Mandala who once more delivers a monster solo, with Crane’s organ adding gorgeous texture. “Even In The Snow” is a six minute instrumental, well suited to the band, with Mandala’s guitar dominant, but Crane’s organ playing a most integral part, giving the tune a Booker T vibe. The album closer, Crane’s “Satan’s Wheel” is nearly seven minutes of Mandala and Crane showcasing their instrumental abilities. As always, Crane’s piano and organ are absolutely flawless and Mandala’s wah wah plays an integral part in the tune’s execution. What a shame that the band would not issue a follow up album until 1980. This incarnation of the band certainly had a magic within their sound. Two track follow that were included on the US version of “Nice ‘n’ Greasy.” Chris Farlowe’s “What You Gonna Do” has a nice groove, with Mandala’s guitar and Crane’s organ and piano turning the song into nearly a boogie woogie number. Crane’s “Moods” has a heavy synthesizer intro, but his piano comes through crystal clear throughout. It is a wonderful showcase for Vincent Crane’s abilities on all keyboards and is an incredible instrumental workout for him. Disc four and the set close with both sides of the 1974 single issued as Vincent Crane and Atomic Rooster. The a-side, “Tell Your Story (Sing Your Song) is a mid-tempo, toe tapper with crisp piano and drum number with horns added for flavor. “O.D.” is filled with wah wah guitar and is unquestionably another autobiographical tune by Crane. Lyrics such as these tell the story: “flying all the time, its eating my mind,” “you shouldn’t be so high, the time has come to die,” “who are you, why don’t you speak,” “you’re laughing at me, stop it,” “leave it, you’ve had it,” and “forget it, you’ve blown it, its over, completely!” Finally, “You’ve wasted your life.” With that, the song and the set come to an end. The perfect, yet incredibly sad tale of a look inside a most tormented soul, that of Vincent Crane.
“Sleeping For Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974” comes in a tortoise shell box. All four discs are housed in mini-LP sleeves and the set comes with a 32 page, full color booklet, which includes an essay by Malcolm Dome, complete track annotations, album by album credits, album and single artwork, and incredible photos of the band as well as related memorabilia. All in all a most impressive package, and one that belongs in the collection of all fans of hard and progressive rock, as well as fans of 70s rock in general.
– Kevin Rathert
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