Great bands that slipped between the cracks of glam, prog, art rock, metal and punk, 1973-1978
The 1970s ended nearly thirty years ago. In the 80s, perception of that decade seemed to be that it was a long hangover from the 60s party where rock became a bloated parody of itself only to be redeemed by punk. The truth was that there was so much great music it took this long just to digest all of it. Thanks to reassesment and reissues, your average blogger is well aware that there are hundreds of great albums in genres like Krautrock and reggae that most people didn’t even know exist. By now one would think the revised canon would be pretty much settled. Think again.
There will always be obscure albums that fly under the radar. But the interesting thing is that there is plenty of quality music that was quite commercial, but still escaped much notice. Their problem was that they were not easily pigeonholed into singular genres. They created music that didn’t quite fit perfectly into genres like glam, prog, art rock, metal and punk, and slipped between the cracks. Whether their labels weren’t sure how to market them, radio didn’t know where to program them, or they just broke up too soon to become famous, these bands left behind some gems well worth revisiting.
Procol Harum, Grand Hotel (Chrysalis) 73
Procol Harum aren’t exactly obscure, thanks to their huge 1967 hit, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” But they are too often mistakenly considered a one hit wonder, when they actually had a long career with brilliantly ambitious albums of orchestral prog, including Shine On Brightly (1968), Salty Dog (1969), and the more down-to-earth Home (1970) and Broken Barricades (1971). By their sixth album, guitarist Robin Trower had left with Gary Brooker returning to more orchestral pop.
The evocative title track opens the album with a sweeping melody that evokes all kinds of images and moods, from louche decadence to sad nostalgia. The album was produced by Chris Thomas, who had recently worked on the second Roxy Music album, Dark Side of the Moon, and John Cale’s Paris 1919. Procol Harum got less attention than the more flambouyant likes of Bowie, T. Rex and Queen. But they were hardly somber. They were just trying to make appropriately complex rock for grown-ups. Listening to the 2009 remaster of this album, they succeeded. Hopefully more people will notice this time.
Cockney Rebel – The Best Years Of Our Lives (EMI) 75
Steve Harley and his band Cockney Rebel were not unsuccessful. Their first hit in 1974, “Judy Teen” was embraced by the British glam scene, which also enthusiastically received the albums The Human Menagerie and Psychomodo. Still, the band was overshadowed by the few glam artists to become superstars, and by the time the movie Velvet Goldmine paid homage to them in 1998, they were unfamiliar to much of the audience. Despite having the requisite rockstar good looks, Harley was a bit more artsy and surreal compared to other glam-era hitmakers. By his third album, he had honed his skill at crafting the kind of pop songs that should have made him a huge star — the surreal outlaw reggae hybrid of “Mr. Raffles,” and the inventive stop-start love tune of “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).”
City Boy, Book Early (Renaissance) 78
1976 to 1979 was not completely dominated by punk. Queen and Electric Light Orchestra still had a strong presence on the charts. The Birmingham quintet was unable to make that leap with their first three albums. Their fourth album finally yielded a hit with “126.96.36.199,” which was a bit more cheesy and over the top then most of their material. Hooks worthy of ELO and Queen did not bring them the success of their peers, and they were quickly forgotten, leaving behind several solid good to great albums.
Be Bop Deluxe, Sunburst Finish (EMI) 76
Guitar virtuoso Bill Nelson could deftly navigate between glam, pop, prog and metal, sometimes within the same song. He could do everything but write a hit, until the gorgeous “Ships In The Night,” from his band’s third album. He followed it up with two more solid albums of futuristic glammy prog pop, but was unfortunately unable to repeat the success of Sunburst Finish. The band broke up, and Nelson pursued a more experimental avant garde direction in his solo career.
Crack The Sky, Crack The Sky (Lifesong) 75
Crack The Sky were formed in Ohio, and later based in Baltimore. Their impeccibly recorded prog rock was just catchy enough to get nationwide radio play, though “Ice,” “She’s A Dancer,” and “Surf City” never became hits. Despite Rolling Stone designating their self-titled debut as album of the year, they coasted below the radar throughout their lengthy career. Nevertheless, their first album stands the test of time as a classic.
Dead Fingers Talk, Storm the Reality Studios (Castle Music) 78
Like The Stranglers, The Only Ones and The Vibrators, Dead Fingers Talk were made up of older musicians who had been around the block, but were nevertheless aligned with punk, at least at first. Formed in 1975 in Hull, they took their name from a William S. Burroughs novel. In 1978 their debut was produced by another former Hull resident, Mick Ronson, melding an obvious Bowie influence with The Stooges, Velvet Underground and the Stones. One of the signature songs of their set was “Nobody Loves You When You’re Old And Gay.” The band had a strong gay following from the glam scene, and they satirized the homophobic attitudes sometimes found in the punk scene. Unfortunately, the media misunderstood the context, and the band never really recovered from the misunderstanding.
Deaf School, 2nd Honeymoon (Lemon) 76
Deaf School were an art rock band formed in Liverpool in 1976 by Steve Allen (aka Enrico Cadillac), who was influenced more by diverse influences like Tin Pan Alley, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Kurt Weill than pre-punk glam or pub rock. They audatiously made their debut, 2nd Honeymoon, a double album that reflects their amazing range, all with a tongue in cheek sense of humor. They also liked to use a wide variety of instruments, including banjo, accordion, piano and recorder. Producer Muff Winwood reigned them in so that the arrangements remain consistently tight throughout. They released two more great albums, Don’t Stop The World (1977) and English Boys/Working Girls (1978) before breaking up. Had they continued, they probably would have at least developed a cult following along the lines of Sparks.
Jobriath, Jobriath (Elektra) 73
David Bowie and Lou Reed may have temporarily flaunted a faux bi-sexuality, but it was Jobriath who was the first ever openly gay rock star. Produced by Eddie Kramer his debut album took glam to a whole other obsessively grandiose galaxy. The operatic vocals and bombastic arrangements out-did Queen and anticipated Meatloaf’s career, with some of the most ambitiously epic ballads anyone has heard at that point. Though he was based in flambouyant L.A. the world of movie stars and alien misfits, he had a tough time getting his music accepted in America, which was still largely conservative. It’s ironic that you can now hear his influence more vividly in Guns N’ Roses than even Morrissey or Pet Shop Boys. He should have moved to London rather than New York. Instead, Elektra’s massive promotional campaign and rave reviews, the album bombed. The label allowed him to release one more album, Creatures Of The Street (1974), but pulled the plug on promotions. Despite that, Jobriath and his band The Creatures did manage to start to win over an enthusiastic following by the end of their tour, but it was too late. Plans for a third album, an autobiographical musical (Pop Star) and various movie roles never panned out, and he lived the rest of his life in obscurity, in a glass pyramid atop the roof of the Chelsea Hotel
until his AIDs-related death in 1983.
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Next (Vertigo) 74
Alex Harvey was another talented artist who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the glam scene, as his roots go all the way back to a Scottish skiffle band in 1955. In 1959 to 1964 his Alex Harvey Big Soul band played some of the same clubs as The Beatles in Hamburg. After unsuccesful dabbling with psychedelica and musicals, Harvey finally clicked with Scottish band Tear Gas and became The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, adopting the flambouyance of glam contemporaries, but also adding cabaret influences to the hard rock. After the successful debut Framed (1972), he pulled in producer Phil Wainman (Sweet, Bay City Rollers) to add some over the top pop sheen while tackling Jaques Brel, and an unusually droning, creepy song about a religious con artist, “The Faith Healer.”
The lengthy guitar-driven song became his first surprise hit single. The influence of that song can be heard in several AC/DC songs a few years later.
The Impossible Dream (1974) and Tomorrow Belongs To Me (1975) continued his hot streak, and long after chart success, Harvey kept rocking until he succumbed to a heart attack in 1982.
Heavy Metal Kids, Heavy Metal Kids (Lemon) 74
Like Dead Fingers Talk (and Steely Dan and Soft Machine), Heavy Metal Kids took their name from a Burroughs novel. And like Dead Fingers Talk, they resided in a no-man’s land between glam and punk that robbed them of the recognition they deserved. Mixing the boogie rock of The Faces and Slade with elements of prog and art rock, singer Gary Horton had a perfect, gravelly shout that inspired AC/DC to invite him to replace Bon Scott. They release three solid albums, the best of which was the self-titled debut, with several enduring anthems, peaking with the frenzied crescendo of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Man.”
Sparks, Kimono My House (Island) 74
Sparks are actually an example of a relative success story. The band tirelessly kept at it and people gradually began to recognize how brilliantly witty their music was. The results of their 35+ year long career is an extremely devoted cult following. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael formed a band called Halfnelson while attending UCLA in 1970. Despite Todd Rundgren producing their self-titled debut in 1971, their quirky art pop was a bit ahead of its time to find and audience yet. They changed their name to Sparks and released the amazing and weird Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing in 1973. They were treated so well during their U.K. tour that they decided London was the place for them, and just as Jobriath should have done, stayed there. After recruiting new band members, they recorded their best album yet, Kimono My House. While it dabbled in bubblegum glam, it was even more distinctive than their previous album. They scored hits in Britain with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” and “Amateur Hour,” while other cuts like “Here In Heaven” were even more amazing. Their string of brilliant albums continued with Propaganda (1974), Indiscreet (1975) and Big Beat (1976). Three decades later, they’re still releasing new music worthy of their legacy.
Sweet, Desolation Boulevard (Capitol) 74
Sweet were originally dismissed for their bubblegum pop singles, which actually were pretty great. You can find more of their backstory here. Basically, they matured into a great rock band that spanned from glam to metal to progressive pop. Like Sweet Fanny Adams from that same year, Desolation Boulevard was loaded with hits like “The Six Teens,” “Fox On The Run” and “Teenage Rampage.” “Medussa” was never a hit, but it’s one of their most unique accomplishments, a jaw-dropping experiment in psychedelica that deftly mixes prog and metal.
10cc, Sheet Music (Mercury) 74
Like Procol Harum, 10cc are remembered for one huge hit, “I’m Not In Love” from their third album, Original Soundtrack (1975). For some reason, few realized, at least outside of Great Britain, that pretty much all of their first six albums are consistently great, a UK equivalent to the impeccibly produced, cleverly written music of Steely Dan. Other songs that are arguably better than their monster hit are “The Second Sitting For The Last Supper” from the same album, “Don’t Hang Up” from How Dare You! (1976), and “Somewhere In Hollywood” and the depressingly still-relevant “The Wall Street Shuffle” from Sheet Music (1974), their second album in their “masterplan to control the universe.”
I belong to a mix club called the DISCiples, consisting of 12 people who take turns each month revisiting the fading art of making mix CDs. This piece became a sort of companion to the mix. There are many other bands that fit into the between the cracks theme, some of which also ended up on the CD, such as Zolar X, another 70s L.A. based glam-metal group who dressed as aliens. They actually appeared on a preliminary round a couple years ago on the American Idol-like show, The Next Great American Band.
The idiot judges laughed the band off the stage, despite the fact that they still rocked. Check out their amazing “I Pulled My Helmet Off (I’m Going To Love Her)” and hear their alien DNA in later bands like Suede and Muse. It was kind of heartbreaking, but their music was re-released on a nice compilation on Alternative Tentacles thanks to Jello Biafra.
The Numbers Band and Tin Huey are two great Beefheart-influenced art-rock-blues bands that came from the same scene as Pere Ubu and Devo. The Pink Fairies came out of the band the Deviants, a hippie psychedelic band that shared the scene the eventually also spawned Hawkwind. The band’s third album, Kings Of Oblivion (1973) was a pre-punk classic that doesn’t get the props it should. Doctors Of Madness were another UK band that was lost between the cracks of glam, prog and punk, who influenced the likes of Ultravox, Simple Minds and OMD.
The bands above are simply personal favorites who suffered varying degrees of obscurity that I felt were great enough to deserve more attention. Undoubtedly there are still plenty more bands like these that have slipped between the cracks of genres, commercial success, and the historical canon, waiting to be revisited.