You can find part one here.
Doubts and Zachariah
By the summer of ’69, the future of power trios looked uncertain. Cream had disbanded the year before. Hendrix had dumped the Experience and begun experimenting with larger lineups. Acts like The Who and Led Zeppelin — essentially power trios augmented by preening lead singers — seemed ascendant.
Walsh wondered if the James Gang should follow suit. He had received ample validation for his guitar heroics, but remained insecure about his singing.
Before the show one night in 1969, Joe told Fox, “I’ve been thinking. I’m not up for this job as a lead singer. I’m no good,”
“I’m not sure what to say,” replied the drummer.
Walsh said, “Look, I’m not fooling anyone — I have an odd voice. I think I might be stronger concentrating on the instruments. Who do you know?”
Afraid to lose Joe’s irreplaceable guitar skills, Fox recruited a friend from grade school, Kenny Weiss, to provide vocals for the James Gang’s new project.
Bill Szymczyk, the band’s producer, had been hired as the musical director for the movie Zachariah, a surrealist, homoerotic rock & roll Western loosely based on the Herman Hesse novel Siddharta. Seizing the opportunity to promote the group, Szymczyk invited the James Gang to contribute two songs to the soundtrack and to appear in the film.
Weiss sang on one of the tracks. (The other was an instrumental.)
However, as the group prepared to fly to Mexico for shooting, Walsh and manager Mike Belkin decided the band did not need Weiss. They told Fox to fire his friend. The drummer remembered, “The hardest call of my life was at 4 in the morning, calling Kenny at his house and saying, ‘Kenny, don’t get on the airplane.’”
That ended the friendship. The jilted singer sued for $50 million, but settled, in the end, for few hundred dollars. “It was so embarrassing and so sad,” Fox remembered. “It was stupid. Just stupid.”
Reconfirmed as a power trio, the James Gang landed in Mexico. After Zachariah’s introductory titles, the band performs the soaring instrumental “Laguna Salada” in the middle of a stark desert. “It was hot,” Joe recalls “it was probably about 110 by nine in the morning.” Despite the heat, the band played enthusiastically to the studio recording. Walsh even perpetrates Townshend’s signature windmill move at one point, which is fitting, since Pete heavily influences Joe’s guitar work on the track.
Later in the film, the James Gang appears as the saloon band performing the hard-rocking “Country Fever” amid wriggling go-go dancers. At one point, Joe half-heartedly lip-synchs some of the vocals Weiss laid down. (I linked to a clip that continues with some decent acting and a mind-blowing drum solo by jazz legend Elvin Jones. You’re welcome.)
Finally released in 1971, Zachariah failed critically and commercially. Consequently, the movie did little to promote the group, though the band did not really need the help by then. Still, Weiss’ singing on “Country Fever” gives a glimpse of the road not taken — the shrieking proto-Aerosmith the James Gang might have become had they strayed from the purity of power trio righteousness by retaining the vocalist.
Recording James Gang Rides Again
As the band’s hectic touring schedule began to generate a growing fan base, the label began pressing for a follow-up album.
Playing more than 300 dates per year left little down time for composing. This merciless regimen typically sets up bands for a sophomore slump — the tendency for groups to follow a solid debut with a weaker second effort.
Determined to buck that trend, the band found ways to develop new material on the road. Bassist Dale Peters: “We jammed in the dressing rooms before each show.” They continued to experiment during sound checks. “All of those riffs and all of those little things we had thought about month after month, just to get warmed up, they turned into tunes.”
During gigs, they improvised so extensively that covers morphed into new material. Joe: “So we just had loose structures of songs that people would recognize and we’d do it our way and do all kinds of strange things and arrangements and stuff in the middle. And when it came around to making a record, we got rid of the beginnings of the songs and just used the stuff that we had made up in the middle and came up with some stuff and wrote some words and that’s how The James Gang songs came about. It was just a gradual transition.”
Of course, they also picked up a thing or two from other bands. “We learned a ton from Pete,” Peters said. “You know, when the Who played back then, I used to love to watch the people in the first row. Because when they started playing, it was like an avalanche, these people, the energy would just blow them back in their seats. It was incredible and it was great to watch. Because they would always start full-tilt.”
Szymczyk — returning to produce the group’s second album — noticed the difference: “They had played for a year on the road and their chops were really up.” The trio, “especially Walsh, he had a giant head full of ideas. I don’t mean a giant head, but he had a head full of ideas.”
The band cut the entire album in a just a few weeks in November 1969. “We recorded at a studio called the Record Plant in Los Angeles — it now is legendary,” Walsh said. “Stevie Wonder got the studio next to us…. Marvin Gaye was in another studio for two weeks…. It was a brand new studio and it was state-of-the-art, and being in that environment creatively was like a B-12 shot. We didn’t know how to record, but we could do anything we wanted, so we did. We tried a bunch of stuff out and a lot of that was not knowing exactly what we wanted to do, but just, ‘Well, why don’t we do this?’ ‘Okay.’ And then we’d record it.”
“I mean, it was easy,” Peters concurred. “Bill got a great sound and he was really great to work with. You know, he was really loose and never said, ‘No, we can’t do that’ or ‘We don’t want to do that.’ We could do whatever we wanted.”
That creative freedom helped make James Gang Rides Again — the resulting magnum opus — the finest album the group ever recorded.
Side One is an electrified tour de force, a collaborative distillation of the best material the band developed on tour. It begins with the irresistibly chunky groove of “Funk #49.” Like its numerical predecessor on the previous LP, it grew out of sound check jams.
Walsh begins the song unaccompanied, with a brief and subversive introductory guitar lick that descends into a churning cavalcade of Joe’s signature chicka chicka riffs interlocking with Fox’s infectious and relentlessly inventive drumming, all subtly underpinned by Peters on bass.
Joe snarls the words with new-found confidence, ferociously denouncing a faithless woman.
The track’s intensity builds to a climax that resolves with Walsh and Peters joining Fox in a percussion ensemble, a chaotic cowbell and jawbone-powered jam punctuated with white man war whoops.
This interlude ends suddenly, followed by a few seconds of Joe playing a variation on the introductory lick. This triggers an avalanche-like return to the core groove and a final verse. During the outro, the James Gang breaks power trio formation and plays out over a spirited reprise of the percussion ensemble.
After that blistering opener, Rides Again mellows momentarily for “Asshtonpark,” a light midtempo instrumental. Joe states a countrified melody and then plays an astounding array of creative variations on it in less than two minutes, using an Echoplex to create the audial illusion of a second guitarist.
“Woman” lulls you into a false sense of security with its modest introductory bass line, but as the drums and then the rhythm guitar kick in, the slow groove grows increasingly emphatic, funky and elaborate. Walsh howls some standard-issue come-on lyrics, Fox throws in some spectacular drum breaks and Joe overdubs generous lead guitar accents and inspired solos. Near the end of the song, Fox embellishes the groove under dueling guitar solos as Szymczyk fades out the track.
Aptly-named, “The Bomber” closes out Side One, featuring some of the finest pure power trio work ever put on vinyl. It is a three-song suite, framed by “Closet Queen,” a hard-rocking James Gang original. After busting out of the gate with a harrowing ninety seconds of proto-metal, the song surprises by downshifting into a showcase of artful guitar effects — not stereotypical wanking, but wrenching harmonics that still sound fresh, 45 years later. This section represents, for the first time on vinyl, Joe’s signature work on slide guitar. It leads fluidly into the suite’s second and third parts — selections from Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” — before returning to the fury of “Closet Queen” for a final verse and a swift exit.
How heavy is “The Bomber”? While listening to initial playback of the track in the studio, Peters remembered, “the speaker just physically blew out of the wall.” Before they were done, Szymczyk reckoned, “We blew eight of those speakers up.”
The James Gang’s execution of the “Boléro” fragment as a power trio is particularly compelling, especially Fox’s crisp drumming and Walsh’s inspired guitar work. Their faithfulness to Ravel’s original distinguishes their rendition from earlier, looser and uglier adaptations by Jeff Beck (“Beck’s Bolero”) and Led Zeppelin (“How Many More Times”).
Nevertheless, the composer’s estate thought the band’s version of “Boléro” deviated too much from the original. Joe explained, “Ravel was French, and French copyright law and French law in general is insane. The French copyright, Ravel’s heirs and Ravel’s estate stipulated in the French copyright law that the piece had to be played in its entirety, top to bottom…. You could never play little parts of it. And it had to be played by the full orchestra that it was written for. Well, we didn’t know that!”
The resulting legal hassle forced the deletion of the “Boléro” section from subsequent vinyl pressings of the album. Fortunately, French copyrights expire after 60 years, which allowed the restoration of the Ravel interlude on CD and digital versions of “The Bomber.”
In their collaborative electric glory, the first four songs of Rides Again achieve an uncommon feat in the history of the album format, comprising a perfect side of inspired music.
Side Two presents an intentional contrast: Mellower and mostly acoustic, it consists of material penned solely by Walsh. The flip side repeatedly violates power trio protocols, both by addition and subtraction.
Ambitious and varied, “Tend My Garden” finds Joe rotating among organ, guitar and piano. Its faster passages, with hand claps pacing a churning guitar- and organ-powered jam, anticipate Boston’s sound on their eponymous debut album (1976) and Don’t Look Back (1978).
“Garden Gate” is a solo acoustic showcase for Walsh. Wistful and heartbroken, the country-flavored “There I Go Again” features a nice pedal steel guitar cameo by Rusty Young of Poco. Joe doubles on guitar and organ on the bitter and reflective “Thanks.”
Rides Again concludes with the stirring and sorrowful “Ashes, the Rain and I.” Tragically underappreciated, it stands as one of Joe’s greatest works. Before Rides Again, several groups had backed rock bands with orchestras, including the Beach Boys (“God Only Knows,” 1966), the Beatles (“Day In the Life,” 1967), the Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed, 1967) and Deep Purple (Concerto for Group and Orchestra, 1969).
“Ashes the Rain and I,” on the other hand, surprises by dispensing with the rock band altogether. Joe sings two short verses, backed by acoustic guitars and a string orchestra, which proceeds to play a beautiful and original mini-symphony. It is Walsh’s magnificent answer to “Adaggio for Strings,” the song that transfixed him as a kid and remains his favorite composition.
In the perfection of Side One, Rides Again vividly displayed the James Gang’s greatness as a power trio. However the ambition of the flip side showed that Walsh was beginning to outgrow the format.
Subsequent posts will finish the story of the James Gang and describe the impact of Joe’s solo career.
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