Mountain - “Flowers of Evil” / “The Road Goes Ever On” (BGO Records, 2018)
Your first image of Mountain might be their natty hippy clothes ransacked from Haight Ashbury of ’Frisco fame, where the Grateful Dead, Airplane and Janis Joplin smoked in their pads, but these titans of hair and tie-dies adorned leading musicians (one a producer) on the New York rock scene. They soon went on to become dubbed, in two incarnations, as a supergroup so beloved as a term of the music press in those heady days.
When Cream separated in late ’68, rock was becoming more experimental and in turn louder. Their producer was Felix Pappalardi (also of Joan Baez, Youngbloods etc), the best-friend of fellow-Long Islander guitarist Leslie West who had a band of high repute then called The Vagrants. Their live reputation didn’t extend into recording success, with two flop singles. The producer took over bass (acquiring the nickname ‘Boom Boom’!), joined by N.D. Smart (drums) and a succession of keyboardists to fill out the sound.
The new quartet’s debut was at the celebrated local Fillmore West in July 1969, achieving fame at their third or fourth gig at the Woodstock festival, its location soon referenced in a single’s title which was played there under a different title. Appearing at 9pm on the second day, they got the gig because their agent was also Jimi Hendrix’s, but didn’t feature on the initial film or album. Their repertoire at that heady moment was Leslie West’s recent solo LP, and the band also took their name from its title.
After a couple of single flops during ’69, the drummer was replaced by the more versatile Corky Laing from Canada, who had come to Felix’s attention when producing Laing’s band Energy. He was, additionally, a songwriter which fitted the band’s developing experimental side. Whether or not an influence on heavy metal—West and Pappalardi were avid Cream and Clapton fans—they were a power trio with a keyboard sideman at the forefront of not only power rock-blues but also noted experimenters wishing to push progressive boundaries, especially on their albums. Among many others the guitarist of Jethro Tull for example has always called Leslie West a major influence.
Their debut LP in March 1970 was Climbing! on the rather obscure Windfall Records, taking ten days only to lay down and featuring two of their all-time classic songs: ‘Mississippi Queen’ and ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’. The first reached #21 on Billboard, as well as featuring in the film Vanishing Point, while ‘Theme….’ was co-written with Cream’s Jack Bruce and their lyricist Pete Brown. Both songs highlight the band’s cinematic approach extending into inventive rock solos and power rhythms. The LP reached #17, followed less than a year later by Nantucket Sleighride in early 1971, reaching #16. The title track soon became another of their classics and a showcase for live jamming, its neo-classical elements finding a place as the theme tune for Weekend World on Britain’s ITV channel.
This iconic band’s next two albums have just been re-issued as a double CD by BGO Records with several of their classics and an informative booklet that includes some lyrics. Flowers of Evil from November 1971 was half recorded in New York two months earlier coupled with the second side from Fillmore East that summer. The trio of West, Pappalardi and Laing, augmented with Steve Knight on keyboards, were still aiming for a more visceral, raw sound than their English mentors who they saw at the Fillmore when it was still called The Village Theater. Described by Rolling Stone as a “louder version of Cream” isn’t too helpful as loud = amps and they weren’t developed until after Cream’s demise.
However, often seen as an archetypal American blues player, West was actually schooled on the British Invasion of such as The Who, Yardbirds and Kinks whle among the first to use stage effects live. The Jewish New Yorker simply liked the blues sound but had no close affinity with it. He played on Who’s Next (1971), as well as a Bo Diddley anniversary album among others, and is cited as an influence by such as Joes Satriani and Bonamassa, Johnny Ramone and Steve Vai. With their apt moniker for West’s physical presence, touting a little Gibson Les Paul Junior before pedal effects became normal, he was also an underrated vocalist mixing grit and passion. Combined with a bassist nicknamed boom boom, who likened the drummer to “a f***ing amusement park on his own”, the band amplified to number 11 and shook every stage they played.
This heavy approach is reflected in the opening title track, a near-five-minute driving boogie with twin (overdubbed) guitars, as also on the slightly slower ‘Crossroader’, a popular live song written by Mr. and Mrs. Pappalardi. A short piano-led ‘King’s Chorale’ segues nicely as intro to ‘’One last Cold Kiss’, a swampy hard rocker around some tight lyrics and vocals. ‘Pride and Passion’ is scene-set with some semi-orchestral guitar, mellotron, then piano-tinkling under the trio’s strident power chords which has an ELO or Queen feel.
The vinyl’s live second highlight’s the whole band’s show-stopping skills to the full…over 24 minutes without a drum solo in sight! Guitar pyrotechnics and power chords set up Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ELO is out the window. Mountain spike the cover with heavy-water acid: if you like what George Thorogood and The Destroyers did when they blitzed the format, this is your brew. The Vagrants’ ‘Dreams of Milk and Honey’ includes Grand Funk Railroad or Lemmy panzer-bass solos, then a powerhouse version of the single ‘Mississippi Queen’ (#4 in Canada), one of America’s best-loved rock anthems, sends Flowers of Evil out in a blistering storm. The audience might have regretted getting tanked up before the show!
The Road Goes Ever On a reference to Tolkien’s The Hobbit—and presumably the preceding LP to Charles Baudelaire—is also live, a year on. ‘Crossroader’ is reprised and extended from the album, this time (Jan.1972) of course where the lead guitar has no studio rhythm guitar underpinning, in what is a classic seventies rocker, ‘holes’ and all. The Vagrants’ live staple ‘Long Red’ with fuzz bass and organ is a track from the band’s debut that has now been used over 400 times on hip-hop and rap! West’s ‘Waiting To Take You Away’ is a fine balladish song delivered with raucous vocal that had no studio version.
These two songs were taken from that fateful Woodstock show in August 1969, then the entire second side was filled with another of their now standard classics ‘Nantucket Sleighride’ recorded at NYC’s Academy of Music in Dec.1971. With melodic interludes building to crashing crescendos, that much overused expression awesome fits here in its original meaning: a tour-de-force of what hard heavy rock is about: rock and experimental inventiveness without parachutes. These live songs, superbly remastered here, were an accurate reproduction of their distinctive album sound but louder. It’s said Felix left because of hearing problems, the official version though Laing also suffered from tinnitus, but West later said in interviews that it was due to ongoing drug abuse combined with playing everywhere anytime, partly a legacy of playing long-booked Vagrants concerts, to the extent that they “could barely breath” (Laing). They even wrote songs in the limo or while eating Chinese food in the studio.
The album was released in April ’72, just weeks after their first break-up, due to road and drug fatigue following a UK tour. It was loved by fans but panned by critics as without focus. Twin Peaks (1974) was released as a cash-in to paper over personal conflicts, recorded live in Japan with a 32-minute ‘Nantucket Sleighride’ as a high point. West and Laing joined ex-Cream’s Jack Bruce for a new supergroup and a lucrative record label bidding war won by Columbia, with three albums in two years ‘til Bruce left in ’73. A short-lived Mountain version featured Hendrix’s bassist Noel Redding.
The original band ended tragically in the early ’80s Felix Pappalardi’s wife, Gail Collins, shot and killed her husband in a New York apartment. She said it was accidental when he showed her the gun so was given a short prison sentence, before decamping to Mexico to live as recluse and dying in 2013. She’d designed their album covers and co-wrote most of the songs on these LPs as well as ‘Strange Brew’ with Eric Clapton. Armed with a scorching, muscular riffing catalogue that got even heavier with age, Mountain performed many high-level tours this century until 2011 when West had a lower leg amputated due to diabetes. He remains one of the best, iconic guitar heroes of the post-Woodstock generation, and these albums show him in that limelight still.
- Brian R. Banks
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