Ronnie Montrose made a name for himself as a hot shot guitarist, working with the likes of Van Morrison and Edgar Winter, before forming his own self-coined band and the blue print for what heavy rock, if not metal, would sound like in the USA for the next decade or so. But he was a man who grew bored easy, was hard to get on with, and steered his own course. Or at least so they say.
Montrose went from a band emitting great shards of blistering guitar fury to one leaning increasingly towards keyboard embellishments, blurring into prog-come-pomp rock and US new wave alike. Ditching the band name, but keeping several latter-day members on board he released a solo album, Open Fire, that trod the jazz fusion route Jeff Beck helped pioneer. The rewards slim, he moved diagonally backwards, exploring such expressive fiery fusion progressive rock guitar melodies within a contemporary AOR sound, under the band-name Gamma.
With keyboard player Jim Alcivar and bass player Alan Fitzgerald continuing to roll over into this new act, it implied Montrose wasn’t quite the Stateside version of a tyrannical Blackmore. Drummer Skip Gillette came on board, but more importantly so did Scottish vocalist Davey Pattison, a much-underrated meaty and passionate blues ‘n soul rock singer.
British influences continued beyond Pattison, with Ken Scott of Bowie, Elton John and Supertramp renown in the producer’s chair, and a cover of an English pop hit, that’s likely to throw the first-time listener, on self-titled debut Gamma 1.
‘Thunder And Lightning’ starts thing off appropriately in anthemic form, and frankly you wouldn’t bat an eye if someone told you it was a track off Bad Company’s Desolation Angels, released the same year. There’s also something of a new wave pop beat and swing to it, then it slows down as Montrose takes a long sweet and precise effective solo before roaring back into the chordal strut of the main song, blasting out louder with treated effects on either Pattison’s voice or Montrose playing his distorted guitar through a talk box.
Auto-tuning/vocoder vocals are also present on ‘I’m Alive’ – a number one hit over here in 1965 for The Hollies, and making it to No. 60 in the US Billboard charts for Gamma, with his collection including the single version as a bonus track. Were it not for the melodic familiarity in Pattison’s voice you’d not know. Here, Alcivar employs Giorgio Morodor-style disco beats alongside pinging synths while Fitzgerald rocks the tune up on bass, and somehow the disparities work. Montrose himself remains relatively quiet, but puts in another tasty solo. It transpires however, the guitar maestro has been holding back, and with ‘Razor King’ he begins to flex his fingers. Atmospheric in his riffing, he leads the way as Pattison explains in no uncertain terms that West Side Story knife fights are as nothing to razor-blade wielding Glaswegian gangsters on the make. Its narrative pulls you in, and there’s little chance of escape as the pace quickens, evolving into a mini-epic, and as the singer screams out: “I’ll get you in the dark!” Montrose takes us into progressive rock territory, slowing things down, then speeding up again with steady deft chugging that may or may not involve double tapping but most certainly turns into a classical arrangement. The song itself returns, the gangster of note, now aged and his kingpin crown about to fall. Once more Pattison’s vocals cast a wicked denouement, Gillette’s drumming the equivalent of bodies falling heavily here, there and everywhere to the ground in this final street fight, Alcivar’s keyboards then appear, ascendant in Hallelujah style glory befitting some pivotal moment film sequence, and as Pattison starts la-la-ing away merrily in blood-soaked madness there’s an undercurrent of a highlands bag-piped jig to those keyboards right up to the point Montrose ends it all with a powerful slash of caustically felt chords. It’s the kind of performance Mick Ronson tried to imbue over to two sides of Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, here Gamma trump him in just under six minutes.
By contrast, the Pattison-penned ‘No Tears’ is a much simpler song. The kind of tune you’d not be surprised to hear Rod Stewart or Van Morrison performing, and as such it allows Montrose the opportunity to enhance the song itself on both acoustic and electric rather than look to impress via flash virtuoso performances. He leaves that for the instrumental ‘Solar Heat’ where from Tangerine Dream eerier spatial soundscapes her begins to pre-empt Beck’s There & Back album by a year. The fusion momentum is kept for ‘Ready For Action’ but swiftly transmogrifying into riff-meister rock with bopping bass – There are guitar thrills and spills while Pattison delivers more fighting talk as he shifts from soul-fuelled to raucous rocking vocally.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Mickey Newbury’s ‘Wish I Was’ is next, and this acoustic spiritual folk number is given a gospel power ballad reinterpretation. Vocally impassioned, Montrose applying AOR rock-come-Andy Summers touches before unleashing a set of slowly sustained notes of passion on guitar through to fadeout.
Beyond the early arcade game keyboard flourished opening, ‘Fight To The Finish’ is a bluesy versed, rocking chorused number where aside from the fact that Pattison rams it down our throat (and we open wide) that he’s no pussycat, you’d think you were listening to Lou Gramm, in fact, as often happened in Ronnie Montrose’s career as we now look back with hindsight he was most definitely ahead of the game – Listen to this, then Foreigner’s now classic ‘Juke Box Hero’ and the paced changes in tempo are incredibly similar, save Gamma’s song came out two years plus earlier.
Fitzgerald subsequently moved onto play keyboards (an earlier role he’d took with Montrose) with Night Ranger and other acts, and in came Glenn Letsch for whose previous band, Bullet Park, Ronnie Montrose had produced demoes. To maintain the Montrose quota, Denny Carmassi sat at the drum kit behind the guitarist once more for what would be Gamma 2. This time the record was co-produced by Montrose with Gary Lyons (Lone Star, Aerosmith). ‘Mean Streak’ steps into the ring, gloves clenched, big, carrying weight and knowing how to use it. It’s a hefty slab of rock, with one of the genre’s best drummers swinging hard and propelling Montrose to take flight in solo. The use of keyboards once more reminds us of Foreigner, Pattison’s vocals rough and ragged, merging Frankie Millar and Paul Rogers nuances with just the right attitude. Next up, ‘Four Horsemen’ blasts off with one of those vintage Blackmore-styled charged riffs for just under a minute before giving way to a swinging drum beat, keyboard led new wave come rocker but doesn’t really grab me until Montrose lays in a bluesy solo whereafter the actual song gains ground too.
‘Dirty City’ sees us once more in Foreigner soundalike territory, save it’s heavier, had more synth tweaks and an expected tongue-in-cheek feel to boot. As wind noises issue forth out the speaker amid a set of balmy sun-kissed guitar refrains we get the excellent ‘Voyager’ – practically nothing more than a slow blues shuffle, but the creative undertow of the band steering Pattison’s fervent delivery of tale of a man lost at sea, seeking to get home, then rendered beyond words with Montrose’s soloing, before they steer it to safe conclusion.
Revealing a penchant for 60s British hit singles, for this album Gamma deliver a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something In The Air’ – heavy on synths while offering an anthemic rock approach it’s somewhat unnecessarily busy. Released as a single, there’s a mono version available as a bonus track, which is interesting as I presumed the USA would’ve stopped producing those by the 80s, but you also single versions of ‘Voyager’ too, both stereo and mono so apparently not, and such bonuses are offered right up to 1982’s third album in this collection.
‘Cat On A Leash’ works much better, keyboards whizzing in all the right places over a cock-assured rocker that struts off into semi-prog territory while sticking two-fingers up at passers-by. Frankly, there’s nothing new on this track, but it’s done well and performed live late in a set I reckon it would’ve gone down pretty well. ‘Skin And Bone’ follows with the same attitude, remove the twinkly keyboard bits and hardened Aussies Rose Tattoo could give you a knuckleduster rendition of this, as it is it’s a nose-to-the ground mean blues with a Keith Emerson style solo stuck in the middle.
The album’s rounded out with ‘Mayday’, driven power chords and whirling synths give way to a broader mid-paced rock, then some guitar pyrotechnics from Montrose between Pattison’s vocals right through to the new wave-hard rocking-power pop crossover of a chorus. We then get added vocal effects, keyboards making fairground-on-acid noises, some fretboard burning antics on guitar and we can all join in screaming “Mayday!” with rushed excitement to the end.
For fans of the band that last track may have sounded like the band announcing their death knell as it was a further two years before Gamma 3. This time round, long time keyboard player Jim Alcivar, who’d been an integral partner to Ronnie Montrose’s developing taste changes in music, for both Montrose and Gamma, was no longer in the band, and his subsequent engineering work for acts like The Dead Kennedys, a major departure. In his place, came Letsch’s band mate from Bullet Park, Mitchell Froom, who would later find fame himself as producer for the likes of Crowded House, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow. Noting this, one’s presumption might be that the band were about to head deeper into new wave territory, and the haircuts in the booklet for this collection hardly disguise that. Perhaps it’s best expressed by opening number, ‘What’s Gone Is Gone’ – its dusty acoustic guitar crawl giving way to a hop, skip, and occasionally stumbling racing AOR rocker that fits the times, and feels written for inclusion somewhere in a movie. It’s all flowing keyboards, Montrose unleashed for a solo, Carmassi sounding busy on drums but only if you turn up the bass loud, while I kept checking to verify Pattison’s singing on this, because his lion’s roar has been severely neutered.
I further note, Pattison is not credited among the songwriters for this album, so the only fighting talk we should expect possibly happened leading up to recording in the studio. Rather the songs credits list Montrose himself in partnership with Froom and Jerry Stahl – who co-wrote Gamma 2’s ‘Cat On A Leash’ and was developing a career writing for TV and subsequently films, so my impression is the three were looking to break in beyond the jingles market composing incidental music for celluloid usage. Since Elektra Records weren’t promoting Gamma in any major way, using what money was on offer to experiment with soundtrack music might have been one of the considerations being taken at the time.
As it was, ‘Right The First Time’ proved to be the band’s highest charting single, making it to No. 77 on the USA’s main Billboard charts, and No. 10 up in Canada. It’s a Cheap Trick and Devo mash-up played as a straight pop number and while I can’t deny it’s catchy, I can’t say it’s something I’ll be humming tomorrow. ‘Moving Violation’ is a step in the right direction, one of two tracks where Carmassi’s also listed in the songwriting credits, though I’d love to know if it was his idea to add phasing to his drums (maybe they were thinking of doing another sixties Brit hit, like The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’). At its best it’s hard rocking in a Foreigner manner, but a little busy via robotic movie music sounds and the same can be said for ‘Mobile Devotion’, but at least Pattison’s voice is more to the fore on these tracks, and the latter’s prog instrumental section works well.
‘Stranger’ was another single, and opens with the kind of pinging those old enough to recall Sinclair home computer’s starting up did. It evolves into a nice moody melodic rocking ballad. In the same general mood is the instrumental ‘Condition Yellow’, progressive but seductively mellow, just right for mystery movie as they lead into chase scenes.
Once more it’s hard to definitely declare Pattison’s the singer on ‘Modern Girl’, but it’s obvious from the second album on they were looking in some Foreigner fans, a semi-cruising rocker with a slight John Mellencamp breeze to it too. ‘No Way Out’ is AOR for the MTV generation and fortunately the singer sounds like his old self here. Wrapped in great waves of keyboards, an air of Blade Runner style dystopian sci-fi thriller mystery to it, we get last number, ‘Third Degree’, Pattison gives it some expressive welly vocally, on this a slow burner wherein Montrose emits atmospheric sounds, that while quite effective, shows we’ve come a long way from ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ but nine years previous.
I’d always been given the impression Gamma was an also-ran music wise, but frankly, if you put this collection up against the Montrose one put out a while back by Cherry Red Records, I’d rank this better as a collection. True, the original Montrose were a bostin’ band but the took a nose dive in adding weaker vocalists and unsure about musical direction. Here, with Gamma, Ronnie Montrose has worked out many of the kinks for what he wants to achieve, and with a terrific set of pipes in Davey Pattison he can see them through. The debut is solid, the second possesses some stronger songs but possibly is not as even. That what they were doing was no longer quite what people were forking out cash being the problem. You can see similarities with Foreigner’s debut where that leans as heavily on prog as it does rockers, so Gamma followed suit, presumably trusting in Pattison’s voice to carry them through, alas they also went crazy with technology becoming neither fish nor fowl for their third release. Still, there’s some bloody good music on this collection, worth really giving a good listen to.
Gamma reactivated in 2000, the same lineup as back in ’82, but with Ed Roth on keyboards. Gamma 4 isn’t part of this collection, and they split after recording it. Ronnie Montrose would predominantly take up a solo career until he sadly committed suicide in 2012. Carmassi went onto play with Heart and others, while Letsch and Pattison would go onto play with Robin Trower; the singer would also record with Michael Schenker, following a memorial concert after Montrose’s death, was urged to form Gamma +, now after 40 years away, he’s returned to Scotland and is performing as a solo artist, here’s hoping he can find time to head south one of these days.
Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
Disc One: Gamma 1 (1979)
- Thunder And Lightning
- I’m Alive
- Razor King
- No Tears
- Solar Heat
- Ready For Action
- Wish I Was
- Fight To The Finish
- I’m Alive (Mono Single Edit) Bonus Track
Disc Two: Gamma 2 (1980)
- Mean Streak
- Four Horsemen
- Dirty City
- Something In The Air
- Cat On A Leash
- Skin And Bone
- Something In The Air (Mono Single Edit) Bonus Track
- Voyager (Single Edit) Bonus Track
- Voyager (Mono Single Edit) Bonus Track
Disc Three: Gamma 3 (1982)
- What’s Gone Is Gone
- Right The First Time
- Moving Violation
- Mobile Devotion
- Condition Yellow
- Modern Girl
- No Way Out
- Third Degree
- Stranger (Mono Single Edit) Bonus Track
- Right The First Time (Mono Single Edit) Bonus Track