To the uninitiated, the body of music that bridged the gap between the first wave of rock & roll and heavy metal proper — popularized during the 1970s and later canonized as “hard rock” — can often seem as generic as its description. Surely any genre whose sole distinction is its “hardness” must be a one-note affair, totally uniform in terms of aesthetics and devoid of the stylistic experimentation that elevates most genres beyond their ostensible limits (i.e. Gershwin introducing jazz and pop to classical music, Miles Davis fusing jazz with rock, Ray Charles approaching country from an R&B angle, etc). And while hard rock did start out as an aggressive update of the blues — British Invasion bands like the Who and the Yardbirds following their musical roots into more dangerous waters — critics and average listeners alike tend to dismiss the artists that followed as no more than an arena-friendly repackaging of those same roots.

But a closer examination of the genre’s canon will prove this a cursory appraisal at best: in fact, many of the hardest rocking bands in history — or at least those who reconciled artistic integrity with commercial success — have succeeded in putting a signature stamp on the larger body of music for which they collectively stand. With A Night at the Opera (1975), Queen made piano-pop and opera sound brutal; Rush infused 2112 (1976) with the sci-fi imagery and mathematical precision of prog; AC/DC brought boogie-woogie back to life on Powerage (1978). And while all these albums may feature long-haired dudes belting it in their upper registers and busting out flashy guitar solos every other verse, the aforementioned bands are anything but homogenous when it comes to style. Anyone who’s listened to classic-rock radio in the last 20 years should be able to appreciate the sizable difference between, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Riff Raff.” 

All that said, I’d now like to take a moment to discuss some lesser known examples of ’70s hard rock — the deep cuts that you’d never hear on your local FM station, but that the shaggy fortysomething clerk at your favorite record shop just might recommend if you said you were into Black Sabbath. And so, without further ado…

DEEP PURPLE – COME TASTE THE BAND

Of all the high-profile rock groups to lose one or more of their founding members at a crucial point in their careers, a surprising number have still managed — whether by strategic adjustment or total reinvention — to persevere beyond the expectations of their fanbases. Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett’s joint departure from Genesis allowed Phil Collins & co. to crack the Top 40 (for better or worse); Jimmy Page’s last-ditch efforts to salvage the Yardbirds gave rise to Led Zeppelin; even the tragic loss of Brian Jones could not thwart Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — around whom the rest of the Rolling Stones have always orbited, like colorful planets to a blinding sun — from outlasting Lennon and McCartney as the most prolific duo in rock & roll history.

But Deep Purple, in the summer of 1975, seemed the least likely to pull off such a feat. Vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover had already left due to “creative differences” with guitarist Richie Blackmore, which — given the prominence of Gillan’s operatic wail in the band’s “Mark II” lineup and on their multi-platinum breakout, Machine Head (1972) — presented something of an pickle. Undeterred, the ever resourceful Blackmore brought in ex-Trapeze frontman Glenn Hughes and a pre-Whitesnake David Coverdale for the albums Burn (1973) and Stormbringer (1974). This “Mark III” lineup enjoyed a degree of critical and commercial success comparable (if not quite equal) to that of its predecessor, which made Blackmore’s own exit in ‘75 that much more devastating. But rather than retire the mantle and embark on solo outings, Coverdale and Hughes led the band’s remaining founders, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, in the unenviable search for a new guitarist.

Their eventual decision to hire Tommy Bolin — a 23-year-old American best known for his session work with Billy Cobham, the former drummer for Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra — seems as logical as it does audacious. On the one hand, Bolin’s background in blues, jazz, and R&B lent itself to the ‘rootsier’ direction in which Deep Purple had already taken a step with their last two albums; Blackmore even cited this stylistic deviation as the basis for his decision to quit. On the other hand, this very discrepancy between these two guitarists — an ostensibly amateur journeyman versus a neoclassical virtuoso — threatened to deprive the band of the six-string pyrotechnics that many fans considered to be their first and last defining feature. How could Deep Purple ever hope to match Mk. II staples like “Child in Time” and “Highway Star” without Blackmore’s baroque genius at the helm?

The resulting album, Come Taste the Band (1975), lacks any such attempts, as the Mk. IV crew wisely refrained from emulating what was for all intents and purposes a different band altogether. Their sound flourished as a result of this willful disavowal, liberating the new members as both songwriters and performers. Coverdale and Bolin composed the bulk of the album (five out of nine tracks) in direct collaboration with one another and individually contributed to the rest; heavy rockers like “Comin’ Home” and “Dealer” benefit most from the seamless interplay between Bolin’s fusion-esque fretwork and Coverdale’s earthy howl. Believe it or not, the big-haired pretty boy who would one day belt “Here I Go Again” from the front seat of a Jaguar while Tawny Kitaen straddled its hood was once nothing if not the measure of his pipes, which evoked and even outmatched those of fellow English bluesmen like Joe Cocker and Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company).

But make no mistake: Tommy Bolin is the star of this album, and the songs that he co-wrote with Glenn Hughes (including an instrumental tribute to George Gershwin stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The aptly named “Gettin’ Tighter,” in particular, boasts the purest synthesis of funk and hard rock since Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. Bolin kicks things off with a percussive vamp — a likely holdover from his brief tenure in the James Gang — that Hughes and Paice punctuate using explosively syncopated hits on the bass and drums. Off this rhythmic figure, Hughes segues into a groove so filthy it might have made the likes of James Jamerson and George Porter, Jr. turn green with envy. This Motown-worthy arrangement lays the perfect foundation for Bolin’s double-tracked lead lick and Hughes’s soulful vocals, a refreshingly clean and bright foil (think Stevie Wonder) to Coverdale’s grit. The song reaches its apex during an instrumental breakdown at the middle — where both tempo and key shift in a delightfully unsubtle attempt at maximum funkification — before bursting back into the final verse, led by a scorching solo from Bolin. This minute and forty-five seconds shows the Mk. IV lineup for what they truly were: Deep Purple at their least pretentious and most fun.

Bolin’s dynamism on Come Taste the Band elevates the rest of the band as a whole, forcing them to embrace new genres while also keeping them from sounding too ‘meat-and-potatoes’ in comparison to the prog and ur-metal styles of previous lineups. And his bandmates must have agreed: Bolin’s rapid descent into drug addiction — which culminated in a fatal overdose on December 4th, 1976 — brought an effective end to Deep Purple until 1984, when the Mk. II lineup reunited for Perfect Strangers. The fact of Bolin’s relative obscurity among music listeners in general remains a tragedy second only to his actual death, especially since he also managed to record two magnificent solo albums, Teaser (1975) and Private Eyes (1976), while still a member of Deep Purple.

SCORPIONS – VIRGIN KILLER

Much like Deep Purple, the German quintet Scorpions became something of a revolving door for musicians during their early career and thus underwent multiple stylistic overhauls before settling on a signature sound: the bombastic pop-metal of “No One Like You” (1981) and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (1984), both of which not only broke into the Billboard Top 100 but also landed videos on MTV. Prior to this commercial breakthrough, however, the band spent the better part of the 1970s as an underdog on the European hard-rock circuit. Of the countless groups that emerged in the immediate wake of Zeppelin and Sabbath, Scorpions seemed, in spite of their poor record sales, to show the most promise.

The most notable difference between the band’s formative sound and the glitzy schlock that followed lies with Uli Jon Roth, whose contributions as both a guitarist and a songwriter shaped the band as much as (if not more than) those of founder Rudolph Schenker. After debuting with the largely unremarkable Lonesome Crow (1972), Schenker and vocalist Klaus Meine did not enlist Roth so much as merge with his own group, Dawn Road, under the name “Scorpions.” Influenced in equal measure by Jimi Hendrix and Franz Liszt, Roth brought a distinctly neoclassical dimension to the hard-edged psychedelia of the Scorps’ original lineup. The four albums released during Roth’s tenure — Fly to the Rainbow (1974), In Trance (1975), Virgin Killer (1976), and Taken By Force (1977) — still rank among the very finest of the hard-rock/metal genre, even rivaling more widely recognized staples like Deep Purple’s Machine Head (1972) and Aerosmith’s Rocks (1976).

Virgin Killer stands out as the most emblematic work from this period, and its first track, “Pictured Life,” sets the tone for the album in terms of both attitude and arrangement. Every instrument in the Scorps’ arsenal — multi-tracked harmony guitars, quarter-note cowbell offset by gunshot snare, throbbing bass — explodes in at once and blazes through four measures of the main riff before coming to an abrupt halt. From this suspenseful lull emerges the vocals, which kick off the first verse not with lyrics but rather a wordless cry. Klaus Meine embellishes his operatic range with a vicious vibrato, making each high note sound as if it were literally wrenched from his throat. Roth matches this effect using long, descending pick-scrapes and spontaneous dive-bombs on the whammy-bar, his fleet soloing as dynamic and forceful as a salvo of fireworks. This symbiosis between singer and guitarist informs the Scorps’ incendiary sound to much the same degree that Page and Plant’s did with Zeppelin.

“Pictured Life” may set the standard here, but many of the proceeding tracks (especially those on Side B) seem to deviate from that standard in a purposeful demonstration of the musicians’ ingenuity. While the syncopated riffing and screaming vocals of the title track foreshadow both NWOBHM and thrash metal after it, the rest of the album ranges all the way from hard-and-fast Hendrixian blues (“Hell Cat,” “Polar Nights”) to gothic balladry (“In Your Park,” “Yellow Raven”). Dieter Dierks’s harsh production — a less polished blueprint for his later work with the band — lends a smoky and almost haunting atmosphere to these compositions, full of cavernous reverb and crackling analog distortion. And while the lyrics amount to little more than syllables for Meine to stretch into impassioned (and sometimes unintelligible) high notes, this shortcoming in no way mars the listening experience. Meine, Schenker, and Roth wrote in English (their second language) largely for commercial purposes, so the vivid symbolism of metal’s best songsmiths (i.e. Geezer Butler, Steve Harris, Glenn Danzig) did not come naturally to them. The Scorps’ true songwriting strengths lay in the construction of melody, as evidenced by the multitude of soaring hooks that suffuse their otherwise savage arrangements. This particular skill would eventually lead the band — sans Roth, who objected to his bandmates’ more bubblegum leanings — to global stardom, while also laying the bedrock for other tentpole acts like Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses.

UFO – STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT

Building on the British neo-blues of the 1960s (the Yardbirds, Small Faces, Cream) with elements of glam and space rock, UFO excels at pushing what could have sounded generic to transformative extremes, though no studio album quite captures the technical capabilities that allowed the band to do so. That distinction belongs to Strangers in the Night (1979), one of the greatest live albums ever put to tape and a perfectly curated retrospective of UFO’s best material. These adrenaline-fueled and absurdly jammed-out renditions eclipse the originals in every way possible; even the production boasts all the clarity of a big-budget studio mix, thanks in large part to some sly overdubbing & editing by producer Ron Nevison. This format furnishes the listener with an ideal opportunity not only to experience UFO at the height of their career, but also to observe the exceptional particulars of their deceptively straightforward sound.

The band’s demanding arrangements and airtight execution make catchy numbers like “Only You Can Rock Me” and “Too Hot to Handle” absolutely burst at the seams, to the point where their more traditional structures — the driving riff, the singalong chorus, the solo-heavy bridge, and so on — become secondary to the manner in which the band interprets them. Take the superb “Let It Roll” as an example: drummer Andy Parker and bassist Pete Way anchor the thunderous double-kick backbeat, allowing Michael Schenker — the now-legendary axeman who started out with his older brother, Rudolph, as a Scorpion — and multi-instrumentalist Paul Raymond to weave gorgeous harmony lines between guitar and synth. Mogg belts the otherwise simple hook in an appropriately fist-clenching cadence, his unflashy but no less emotive voice taking the forefront of the sonic assault. Just like Thin Lizzy with their equally jaw-dropping (and better known) Live & Dangerous, the members of UFO improved on their own songwriting through live performance.

And while the hits certainly account for some of Strangers’ highlights, the true magic lies in deep cuts like “Love to Love” (cited by Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris as a major influence) and the 11-minute expansion of “Rock Bottom.” The latter, in particular, stands out as a showcase for Schenker’s jaw-dropping guitar work. A soloist of the highest order, he further accents his dynamic phrasing — a muscular yet melodic blend of modalities — by milking the aptly named ‘sweet spot’ on the tonal spectrum of his wah pedal. The lightning flit of hammer-ons and pull-offs, the mad sputter of tremolo picking, and the dulcet wail of whole-step bends interweave in fits and starts at first, then gain momentum and converge into a dizzying thunderstorm of notes. Raymond keeps pace by harmonizing on the Moog synthesizer, while the ever reliable Parker and Way ratchet up the intensity beneath. Over the course of nearly six minutes, Schenker not only exhausts a full complement of technical skills — the listener can almost hear him stretching past his limits — but also raises the bar for hard rock and heavy metal as a whole. Guitar legends like Kirk Hammett and Slash have since looked to Schenker for inspiration, adopting the speed, structure, and melody of his solos as key components in their own musical lexicons.

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