“Got a call from an old friend, we used to be real close…” – “My Life”, Billy Joel
Well, it wasn’t actually a call, but I got an email from a high school friend of mine recently. I don’t think I’d seen or been in contact with the guy since they laid the diploma on me, many years ago. High school was something I wanted squarely in my rear view mirror. But I always liked BG and was delighted to revisit our friendship, virtually speaking. As part of our conversation, inspired by B&V he mentioned he was a fan of the 60’s English blues-rock band Free. Other than “All Right Now” I didn’t know much of their music. I did know two of the members of Free, lead vocalist Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke went on to form Bad Company. I have since picked up a couple of Free’s albums and I must admit, I’m damned impressed, but that’s another post in the making.
As I thought about Free vs Bad Company, I started thinking about some of those great bands, like Free, that were to some degree overlooked. Sure, everybody hears about the “Supergroup” when it forms – Cream was considered a super group at the time it formed, or Manassas when Steven Stills formed them. The Traveling Wilbury’s may have been the super-est of the Supergroups. Even today we have Chickenfoot, a Supergroup made up of Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony, and RHCP drummer Chad Smith. Famous musicians come together all the time to form new bands.
But what about those bands who formed, didn’t hit it big and then split up and one or several of the members went on to stardom or superstardom. How bad would you feel if your lead singer went onto platinum success but you couldn’t make it work. It all gets back to chemistry. There is something magical when the right three, four or more guys get into a room and make music together. You wonder why some of these bands stay together when they can’t stand each other – they know their chemistry is magic. Don Henley couldn’t make the same kind of music without Glenn Frey and vice versa. There is something that David Lee Roth brings out in Eddie Van Halen’s guitar that no other lead singer has been able to. I quote Joe Strummer’s comment, “never underestimate the chemistry of the right four musicians in a room” (or something like that) all of the time. When I started thinking of some of these early “near-miss” bands I realized that there were more of them than I realized. I guess you could say about these bands, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. I guess the chemistry just wasn’t there. In most cases, I would suggest that these bands deserve another look, or perhaps another listen would be more appropriate. In each of these cases, one or several members went onto “greatness”.
This list is in no particular order:
- Free – I figured I’d start here since we already mentioned them. I think these guys were bigger in England than in the US. They were an influence on Zeppelin (who quote their song “The Hunter” on their first album) and The Faces who covered several of their songs live on stage. Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke went on to form the hugely successful Bad Company, but I love Free, it’s harder, bluesier music.
- Montrose – Sammy Hagar’s first band. They cut two fantastic albums, “Montrose” and “Paper Money” before Hagar went on to solo success. The records produced several hits, including the incendiary classic “Bad Motor Scooter” but Montrose never caught on the way Hagar was able to on his own.
- The Jeff Beck Group – as you probably suspect here, I’m talking about the original version of this band with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass guitar. Beck treated the rest of the band as side men and they never came off the road long enough to write enough original material. Beck fired Wood and Rod left right behind him. Obviously Woody went on to join the Faces and then the Rolling Stones and Stewart went on to individual superstardom. The Jeff Beck Group was due to play Woodstock, which would probably have been a game-changer but Beck who was fond of fast cars, got into a car wreck and they had to cancel. Damn shame, as I think Jeff Beck is one of the greatest guitarists ever. The two albums these guys cut, “Truth” and “Beckola” remain huge influences on blues rock to this day.
- Generation X – formed in the heyday of Punk Rock, Generation X recorded two albums and were in the process of recording a third album when they broke up. Their lead singer was none other than Billy Idol. They even did an early version of “Dancing With Myself”. During the recording sessions for the third record, they split citing “creative differences”. Some in the band wanted to stay true to their punk roots, and some wanted to expand their sound.
- The Runaways – Now, this girl group may or may not have been famous. I can only tell you that the Runaways never got any radio play in my home town. Movies have been made about the craziness around this band. After they finally broke up The Runaways spawned the solo careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford.
- John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Mayall’s Bluesbreakers have gotten a lot of attention over the years, and they did record the seminal “With Eric Clapton” album, which is still in high rotation here at B&V. I think of Mayall’s band as an English Prep School for Rock Stars. Who didn’t serve a stint in the Bluesbreakers – Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Ginger Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie. Every one of those folks went on to much bigger careers after leaving.
- The James Gang – Joe Walsh’s first group. After a promising debut, the other guys wanted more creative input and they wanted to veer away from the guitar, riff-driven songs that made their name. Everybody wants to be the front man, sigh. They veered back to the guitar rock that made them famous on “James Gang Rides Again” which is a classic, but the writing was on the wall. Joe took off and formed Barnstorm. After a string of solo hits including “Rocky Mountain Way” he joined the Eagles.
- Mother Love Bone – these guys were on the verge of stardom when their lead singer, Andrew Wood sadly overdosed. I love the stuff they’ve released. Who knows where they would have gone. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament ended up reforming a band around Mike McCready’s lead guitar. At the suggestion of Jack Irons of the RHCP’s, they auditioned a guy from San Diego named Eddie… I think it was Vedder… Pearl Jam became one of the biggest bands in the world.
- The Faces – the second band where Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood (now on lead guitar) left to go on to bigger solo success. Actually Rod had a dual solo career at the same time he was serving as lead singer in the Faces. It apparently confused early-70s rock fans… Are the Faces his back up band? His solo career took off after “Maggie May” and the Faces died in the shadow of that success. Ronnie went on to the Stones, and drummer Kenny Jones went on to join the Who. Oh, and Rod did pretty well on his own too. The Faces absolutely deserve a second listen, but anybody whose read these posts before know I’m biased…
- Them – Van Morrison’s first group. They changed their line up so many times by the end it was just Van and whoever was available to come to the studio. I think Jimmy Page even played on a few Them singles. Van was probably destined to be a solo artist as he is rather mercurial, but Them had some great songs including “Gloria” and “Baby Please Don’t Go”.
- Buckingham-Nicks – Fleetwood Mac, at a loss after another guitarist had quit, were given the “Buckingham-Nicks” album as an audition of sorts for producer Greg Olson. They hired the producer and both Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. I always loved Lindsey and Stevie’s chemistry. I still do. This album is a lost gem.
- Buffalo Springfield – this band did better than most of the folks on this list. But with Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Bruce Palmer all in the band, who knows what they could have accomplished if they could have just gotten along. They didn’t want Neil to sing because, well for obvious reasons, and Stills kept wanting to play the lead guitar parts, which were supposed to be Neil’s. Too many cooks spoiled the broth.
- Uncle Tupelo – Both Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy who went on to form Son Volt and Wilco respectively were in Uncle Tupelo. I was never that big into alt country but Jay and Jeff apparently couldn’t get along. Everything I’ve read would suggest Jay Farrar is a control-freak but there are always two sides of the story. Son Volt had early success but Wilco is the band that has really stood the test of time.
- Whiskeytown – Ryan Adams’ first band. They were always a little sloppy but I like Whiskeytown. They’re another alt country band that I’ve seemed to get into as I get older. “Stranger’s Almanac” and “Pneumonia” were great records. Ryan went on to quite a solo career after “Heartbreaker” came out. Of course now that he’s cutting Taylor Swift cover albums, he’s dead to me.
- The Spencer Davis Group – for a band with Steve Winwood in it, these guys only had about three or four actual hits. After three years Winwood finally split to form Traffic, another personal favorite. The Spencer Davis Group even boasted bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson later of Elton John’s band. With all that talent you’d expect a little more here.
- Mudcrutch – Tom Petty and Mike Campbell’s first band. After they split Petty went on to form the Heartbreakers. Mudcrutch didn’t record more than a handful of singles, including an early version of “Don’t Do Me Like That” but they just didn’t take off. Petty and Campbell along with Benmont Tench revisited Mudcrutch a few years back and recorded a great album. Rumors have it their follow-up record is in the works for this year release.
- Band of Joy – Another band that only had a handful of singles, released on their lead singer’s retrospective, “Highway 61 to Timbuktu”, none other than Robert Plant. They also boasted a drummer by the name of John Bonham…. I wonder whatever happened to those guys?
If you like some of the artists mentioned in this post, perhaps you might want to check out their “back pages” as the saying goes. I really like most of the bands on this list. It’s great to check out some of these artists in their more formative period. I encourage everyone to do the same. Let me know if I missed any bands that should be on this list.
Turn it up loud, enjoy and as always, Cheers!