A hard rock box set that questions the meaning of life while propping up a bar with mates…
Released by Demon Records on 7 October 2016
Review by Paul H Birch
“In the Birmingham Mail they reported a whale,” sang the silver-throated former Deep Purple legend in ‘The Dead of Night’ but amid the cheers as Ian Gillan’s new band strode on stage in the dark at Barbaralla’s night club a shallow youth cried out: “It ain’t them. Must be some punk rockers supporting him.” The large shaven-haired bass player and cap-sleeved t-shirted guitarist weren’t the serious-musos this former full-headed blond had seen twice before at Birmingham Odeon.
The Ian Gillan Band is historically maligned as a rock-fusion act. More a hard rock version of Camel who threw in the odd Purple number, but even I could tell their fan base was waning: their Scarabus tour had a two-thirds full crowd and was sponsored by Sure anti-perspirant who were running a battle of the bands competition (with Brummie folk rockers Quill taking part). Why the weekly music papers hadn’t mentioned IGB had folded and Gillan was going out playing smaller gigs branded under his surname frustrated the budding journalist in me, yet the more abrupt hard rock sounds being blasted out by this new lot of – if not punks – eccentric looking bunch didn’t take long to get used to. However, it did feel like this new band were going to end up playing clubs forever before their first album got released, and even that was a hit and miss affair.
We knew ‘Vengeance’ existed as a single; the disk jockey at Barbaralla’s put it on after the band’s performance; you just couldn’t get hold of a copy. Donkey’s years later we found out a whole album bearing the new band name had been made but only released south of the equator. The first official UK release, Mr Universe, with a further line-up change, was just as hard to find: Record label Acrobat went bust but Virgin stepped in, ensuring decent distribution and despite their age the band being touted as part of the New Wave of Heavy Metal scene, working their way back up to the nation’s Odeon circuit and tossing in a set of great singles that scaled the charts.
The release of Gillan – The Vinyl Collection 1979-1982 allows us to peruse the band’s vinyl career, reacquainting ourselves with forgotten gems and a few clodhoppers too. But most importantly, it reminds those of us who wore our patches proudly how of all the offshoots from Deep Purple’s family tree this lot really were a people’s band.
His signature emblazoned as band logo, Gillan glares out at the record collector looking every bit the 70s rock star catalogue-man in his double-breasted white sports jacket, whereas turn the 12” vinyl sleeve over and he’s wearing the same sawn-off denim one he’d wear for the next five years. That visual transformation not only summed up the differences between his previous slick outfit to this one, but the two writing styles he himself would apply within this new collective: one moment reaching out searching for the meaning of life, the other drunk as a skunk and ready to party all night long. Similarly, while initial impressions of the band were a rugged bunch of hardened rockers they could turn a song on its head bringing their music to a level of impressive subtle sophistication.
Keyboard player Colin Towns was the only member to survive the IGB fall-out, that and his keyboard instrumental ‘Second Sight’ that opened their shows and so too this album. An engaging twisting synthesiser melody it was progressive rock in the UK/Camel manner that promptly gets mugged as the new arrivals of John McCoy, Bernie Tormé and Mick Underwood lash out with the hot cha-cha rock of ‘Secret Of The Dance’.
Towns would be the main songwriter throughout the band’s existence in fact it was his writing of Side 2’s closing piano ballad ‘Fighting Man’ that convinced Gillan he needed to change musical direction. A ballad, you say? Well, similar to Bad Company’s signature calling card its lyrics offer a tough-talking outlaw attitude, but you also get Gillan’s patented wailing voice and the only evidence of Steve Byrd’s time in the band via them retaining his guitar solo (He would go onto play with numerous acts, including Kim Wilde’s band, but sadly just as this collection was released news of his leaving this mortal coil flooded the internet). At just under eight minutes long it’s not aged as well as Side 1’s ‘She Tears Me Down’ that falls into similar musical territory but has the full force of the band behind it, with Gillan coming across genuinely tortured as he sings of a failed relationship. That it’s followed with the misogynistic filth of ‘Roller’ might upset today’s metro-sexual male but it’s a thunderous unrelenting bloodied rocker that stands the test of time.
With a contrariness you become accustomed to with this band they follow it with title track ‘Mr Universe’: Towns’ bass synth followed by a rippling electric piano melody as Gillan begins his monologue: “Are you God, are you man, do you live in fear?” Then, when he sings: “I just need some information,” Bernie Tormé’s guitar screams out pleading in pain. When he asks: “What’s my destination?” the band answers by battering Heaven’s gates down with more fury than the horn at Jericho.
Thereafter, at turns, Gillan questions God’s will, demands moral satisfaction, or takes a working class savoir-faire rationalist approach while constantly reminding us what a fantastic singer he could be; from whispered hush and croon as proto rap, to embittered rocking rage, vibrato here, elegant screaming there; each note counting. Then as if the Archangel Michael came sword in hand to cut them down, Tormé slashes out with his guitar in defence: a solo that imbues dizzying Hendrix scales with feedback, all the bombast of a punk rocker sticking two-fingers up at Van Halen, the guitar hero of the day, only for Gillan and band to return to the fray before musically walking away; metaphorically wiping their hands of religion’s great contradictory mess. The song meant a lot to a working class lad barely in his first tight jeans, it still does to this middle-aged has-been.
The aforementioned ‘Vengeance’ opens Side 2. It rocks, hard, but there are too many chords and sections moves rather tediously between each other, though listening afresh years later you can’t deny Gillan sings well. More up my street is the throwaway rocker of ‘Message In A Bottle’ with some corny lines and a super swashbuckling swing and swagger pouring out of Tormé’s guitar. The only group-written track is the decidedly different ‘Puget Sound’ – Beatles chord sequences with a Purple Mark II narrative flow.
‘Dead Of Night’ is the mother of monsters that makes this whole album for me. McCoy’s incessant staccato bass riff’s as seductive as it is menacing, Tormé flailing away with cool licks throughout while Towns lays into some boogie piano then a synth solo. Musically it’s magnificently off the wall and Gillan matches them lyrically every step of the way. Utilising William Burroughs’ cut-up technique with local newspaper headlines, displaying a Jekyll & Hyde ideology here and there, and applying innuendo about getting your wicked way with the opposite sex it somehow works superlatively.
A wonderfully sequenced album; the lesser tracks falls where they should, while the great ones continue to surprise with their confidence and sheer originality. What’s also noticeable since my old 1979 copy of this album is the hi-fi quality that comes out of the speakers now, most particularly with the nuances of Towns’ keyboards heard much more clearly. Mr Universe reached No. 11 in the album charts, not bad going, not shabby at all.
Looking like someone had pasted a great big Gillan logo over Rush’s 2112 album, 1980’s Glory Road never set well with me at the time, but what did I know – It reached No. 3 in the charts! The band had decided to play up the hard ‘n’ heavy drinking rock ’n’ roll people’s band angle, and threw in a free album too for the first however many thousand kids who bought it, and For Gillan Fans Only mostly is, but if you’re parting with good money for this vinyl collection you are one and you’ll be glad to know Demon have included it with its original double gated album design intact along with its inner sleeves still embellished with lyrics and photos.
Listening to Glory Road afresh one realises that Towns and Tormé had by then developed a fantastic musical relationship, trading and playing in unison dextrously inventive elongated riffs as on ‘Are you Sure’ and ‘Running White Face City Boy’. Despite which it’s McCoy and Tormé alone who author the music to opening number ‘Unchain Your Brain’ with its fidgeting riff hook, fairground organ evocations and screeching guitar melodies. Listen carefully and you realise Gillan is double tracking his voice to create fluid pop harmonies the way he did in Purple, a quality he’ll bring to the table on several tracks.
I can take it or leave it with ‘Time And Time Again’ which is basically 50s doo-wop over a 12 bar blues, but it’s more convincing than Side 2’s blues jam ‘If You Believe Me’. Whereas the long guitar heroics intro of ‘No Easy Way’ may resemble Tormé’s similar excursions during ‘Mr Universe’ there’s an added finesse of sensitivity and sustained control there before the band join in on this hard smattering Jerry Lee Lewis type rocker.
Side 1 ends up with the excellent Towns-Gillan co-write ‘Sleeping On The Job’. A stylish super freaky riff playing cute and heavy, with as many casual musical asides played with aplomb as there are double entendres pursed from Gillan’s lips about his prostitute lover being too tired to dive into bed with him. Seagulls noises, church bells, a baby crying and some dramatic keyboard flourishes open Side 2 before the stomping proggy rock riff of ‘On The Rocks’ ensues properly. The bass heavy ‘Nervous’ has a classic Alice Cooper horror shtick feel with Gillan raging and hollering so hard it bypasses any potential campness, and as with a few other choice numbers in makes you consider him deciding to join Black Sabbath wasn’t such a daft idea in principle.
For Gillan Fans Only opens strongly with ‘Higher And Higher’ Gillan giving us some beautiful harmonies and vocal asides, with a certain funkiness that recalls Purple’s ‘Never Before’ single but more so this comes across as a rewrite of the Ian Gillan Band’s earlier ‘Mercury High’ with Tormé tossing in subtle cheeky guitar lines and Underwood’s drum rolls tucking everything to bed nicely.
The main problem with the freebie wasn’t its collection of lesser tunes and half-jams but the infuriating in between song banter that tried to evoke Monty Python or more appropriately Peter Cook & Dudley Moore in their Derek & Clive guises. It failed for the most part back in the day and doesn’t really get better with the passing of time.
‘Your Mother Was Right’ again has something of the Ian Gillan Band about it with a experimental complicated riff, there’s also some added ‘Nervous’ style menace so veering a little into Atomic Rooster territory. ‘Redwatch’ is a Mick Underwood single’s b-side, catchy but not Cozy Powell’s ‘Dance With the Devil’. A lot was made of the Alistair Crowley inspired ‘Abbey Of Thelema’ at the time, it having been on the original Southern hemisphere original Gillan release. Melodramatic with an eerie piano motif it does veer toward pub rock and the flute solo (played by Town who was brilliant on it live) is a bit too Ian Anderson jamming with Black Widow. ‘Trying To Get Next To You’ however is a real gem of laid back rock ’n’ roll, Gillan pulling a sincere Elvis like delivery and a quite inspired solo from Tormé. The guitarist takes lead vocals and slide guitar, with McCoy on bass and Samson’s Thunderstick on drums for the boogie punk of ‘Come Tommorow’ on Side 2, then later the whole of Gillan supposedly decide to send-up Samson with ‘Egg Timer’ but all I hear is a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band parody and ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ is what it reads on the tin. Fortunately we have a needle we can pick up and land back on tracks like Towns’ ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ that demonstrated why he was able to walk right into film and TV theme writing once Gillan folded, plus the intriguing mash-up of ‘Post Fade Brain Damage’.
Hardly as cohesive an album as Mr Universe, even if one ignored the For Gillan Fans Only add-on, Glory Road solidified the identity of Gillan as a live act and tracks like ‘Sleeping On The Job’, ‘Running White City Boy’ and ‘No Easy Way’ are exemplary examples of an ace band hard at work making it all look easy.
Was 1981 my personal coke-dazed phase? I can’t recall hearing this back in the day, yet it proved Gillan’s highest charting album at No.2. Another gatefold sleeve, this time featuring band photos, newspaper cuttings and an odd assortment of science fiction images, Angus McKie’s being the best and its front cover the worst. Today’s Brit kids relate the term Future Shock to sci-fi comic 2000AD’s traditional try-out strip for new creators, and the comic was making headway into the general public’s consciousness back then, but the Gillan guys were of an older persuasion and had taken it from Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book on the impending psychological revolution required to cope with the advances in our industrial world. Today we have psycho-babble by specialist consultants on how outsourcing and the cloud are going to save the chosen few in business and politics. But screw that, it’s McCoy’s gnarly bass and some feedback fuzz guitar over a hard-edged rock riff, suitably interrupted by a whiz-bang keyboard solo as you put the needle down to play ‘Future Shock’ that we’re interested in.
Next, the broad ranged rock of ‘Night Ride Out Of Phoenix’ veers towards a slow metal blues, but ‘The Ballad Of The Lucitania Express’ has us steaming in ‘Speed King’ mode with Tormé and Gillan both screeching out the high notes while ‘No Laughing In Heaven’ is an unexpected pleasure, Gillan in amusing Alex Harvey roustabout narration over an odd time boogie before they hook into an almost classic glam rock chorus hook line, Towns layering in some Lord like organ licks and Tormé responding with laconic charm. Those looking for Purple comparisons to continue will appreciate the ‘Fireball’/’Speed King’ bombast of ‘Sacre Bleu’ and ‘Bite The Bullet’ but it’s the hit single cover of Gary S.S. Bonds’ ‘New Orleans’ that sorts the men out from the boys on this album.
Underwood’s Brit beats underscore the track; Gill and Tormé lead off with a call and response attack, and the whole band play with bolshy affection and consummate skill. It was a great single back in the day, listened to now the separation is more distinct and has aged better than a fine wine. The singer roars and soars, the guitar tosses out the slickest of licks with all the nonchalance of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, and for one brief moment the keyboards ignore their Fats Domino influence to go absolutely bonkers. ‘New Orleans’ is brilliant, don’t underestimate it.
The acoustic picked ‘If I Sing Softly’ is a real departure, sure its latter section becomes more power ballad orientated, but it has an overall folk hippy feel. Not what one might expect and fans of acts as diverse as Queensryche and Opeth might find moments within this long forgotten ditty worth a listen. The triumphant chorded ‘Don’t Want The Truth’ might well reflect the developing music industry of the time as it has an AOR flavour. Towns minimalist piano motif delivers an air of mystery to ‘For Your Dreams’ another experimental work on which the album closes; Underwood’s drumming is again a prerequisite for this song to work with shifting tempos forming a tenuous future lineage to what will pass for the darker romanticisms of the new wave movement.
As performers Gillan were now at the top of their game, a tour de force heavy metal live act who could delve back into rock ’n’ roll’s back catalogue and deliver as finely as they could compose songs of an unpredictable nature. Charting so highly this is when it all came together. Or so you’d think. Behind the smiling faces, cracks were being hid. Not long after Bernie Tormé was gone; off to help another classic British rock singer’s career, in the form of Ozzy Osbourne.
Wearing big 80s hairdos, tight leather and high heels, two ladies of the night lean against a lamppost giving us the come-on across Double Trouble’s front cover whereas turn it over and we see five frowning blokes walking towards us. Was this a continuation of the Gillan band’s contrariness or a statement of the times? The album title’s theme is further extended by it being another gatefold sleeves (again with pictures and lyrics), and like Glory Road two albums, the first featuring Janick Gers (long before his admission to the ranks of Iron Maiden), the latter live recordings from 1980s Reading Festival and a date at The Rainbow in 1981, featuring Tormé.
The studio album as a whole is possibly the band’s most cohesive since Mr. Universe, professional and slick with its eyes on all the rewards that AOR and MTV might offer the right band. But then Gillan were never about being pretty faces. With Towns’s composing credits few, McCoy-Gillan co-writes (plus Underwood on three tracks) are favoured. There to play guitar, Gers epitomises Blackmore’s qualities while working expressively within the arrangements.
If you’re trying to explain Ian Gillan’s patented vocal scream to anyone under 30 you usually reference Made In Japan live classics ‘Strange King Of Woman’ and ‘Child In Time’. For studio tracks I’d now recommend Double Trouble; you’d call it showing off were it not done so well. ‘I’ll Rip Your Spine Out’ goes for the jugular, and could be personal regarding a failed long term relationship. Similarly hard rocking ‘Restless’ reads like a kiss-off to Tormé while ‘Men Of War’ has the singer espousing more worldly thoughts; his lingering wails flowing over a mid-paced broken chord rock melody with Towns stepping into the mix for a wonderful jazzy section with organ and piano. The pumping AOR of Side 1 closing number ‘Sunbeam’ features fine solos from Gers and there’s more of a similar nature with added 80s production sfx on Side 2’s ‘Nightmare’.
Those partial to the band’s more manic moments will get off on the raucously hard beat rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Hadely Bop Bop’ channelling Purple’s ‘Space Trucking’ with a couple of rockets up its backside. At only four tracks a side, the final two are Gillan-Towns co-writes with Underwood’s offbeat shuffle rhythm giving ‘Life Goes On’ a dance quality over a song that probably tries too hard but has some welcome keyboard flourishes.
Concluding with ‘Born To Kill’ they deliver what’s possibly the best track on the album. Waves of keyboards embellish lightly in the background as a piano busks between classical and jazz piano then fades to simple bass figures as Gillan takes up a sinister refrain that becomes more dark and unhallowed even as the music itself builds in uplifting manner. You know this is intended as serious stuff the lyrics are listed as being in three sections. There’s an atypical Heep like bounce here as its veers into art rock rather than prog, with manic rushes of energy in between. The overall effect is of Gillan taking the role of a seriously unhinged Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar bolted onto Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. A lost gem. Here in embryonic form is a direction heavy metal would pursue in a more techno direction decades later.
“Gillan, Gillan,” the Reading crowd rage before cheering loudly as Town delivers ‘Second Sight’ and then they’re in ‘No Laughing In Heaven’ with not an overdub in sight on this slice of live vinyl. Underwood’s cowbell and McCoy’s upfront bass are belting out on the rhythm end, Tormé is merely keying in notes until the chorus where he suddenly takes off like two guitars playing at once, then jousts back and forth with Towns, while Gillan the man presides over it all testifying like James Brown with an attitude problem. More straight ahead with ‘No Easy Way’ Towns is hammering on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and after tearing off notes here and there Tormé struts his stuff, challenging his equipment’s sonic capabilities and taking the roof off. Standalone single ‘Trouble’ is raw, while a quick search round the internet reveals ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ was also only released as a single back in the day and while some of the live sound on stage is lost the crowd applaud wildly, that said I still can’t warm to ‘If You Believe Me’ and it’s an extended live version.
The live sides end with McCoy playing a bass solo prior to a celebratory ‘New Orleans’. Again it’s raw, but for whatever their final differences it shows how well Gillan and Tormé worked together.
Double Trouble proved to be a fall in UK chart positions for Gillan, only reaching No. 12, albeit a success in its own rights. Despite featuring less classic tracks the studio section has held up well. There’s less musical interaction between guitar and keyboards for sure, but that’s made up for on the live slice of vinyl where on the best songs the energy literally pours out of the speakers.
While the familiar Gillan signature logo wafts out of a magician’s hat, the front cover doesn’t really scream at you that this is a rock album. Within its gatefold sleeves is an Oz magazine style tribute with the band illustrated beside scenes reminiscent of Rupert the Bear’s more fantastical moments. Visually none of it really works and though Magic only reached No. 17 in the album charts it wasn’t a bad way to end things, at least musically.
A continuation of the previous album style, it’s apparent the changing musical landscape isn’t going to be kind to a band like Gillan. Mick Glossop’s more polished production is a sign of the times but still falls between a rock and a hard place as they test run AOR rock and revert to more experimental soundscapes with Towns once more taking the lead songwriter role, but possibly with one eye already on a fulltime composer’s career. McCoy co-writes a few tunes, but his previous involvement behind the studio desk is now superfluous, more obvious his bass sound is neutered, as were far too many four stringers during this period as technological advances favoured layered studio sounds.
Things start promisingly with the octave jumping riff of ‘What’s The Matter’, Gers delivering his first of two co-writes on a tune that hints at what Rainbow might’ve sounded like if Gillan had accepted Blackmore’s offer to join him prior to Purple eventually reconvening. ‘Bluesy Blue Sea’ follows and has that 12 bar format at its route, getting a little too clever for its own good in places but some fluid soloing from Gers. ‘Caught In The Trap’ reveals the madcap side of this band remained even if let out only now and again, with Gillan screaming and ranting and Towns vamping vaudeville style on his solo. Falling in a similar frenetic manner ‘Driving Me Wild’ closes Side 1, albeit that is has a more direct rock beat with the addition of synthesizers blazing away
Keeping things simple, in between all this we get a delightful poppy pomp rocker with Gillan double tracking his harmonies again on ‘Long Gone’. Never heard it before, but I like it, and I’ve heard something rather similar… Something recorded a couple of years later by a band called Van Halen, on a hit single called ‘Jump’, even the solo is a little similar.
Side 2 leads with ‘Demon Driver’ and concludes with its melody as ‘Demon Driver Reprise’. Another big-themed grand concept number it’s Styx playing at being Black Sabbath. In another reality Gillan and Towns could have gone off to write rock operas.
Contrary to the end, they follow ‘Demon Driver’ with the evocative ‘Living A Lie’. A close echo on Gillan’s voice during its softer thoughtful ballad section, the band adding their weight to strong effect come the choruses. McCoy co-writes ‘You’re So Right’ a catchy melodic rocker, that at just under three minutes even incorporates a guitar and keyboards interchange, with Gers soloing away on his own as the upbeat chorus runs out the grooves.
To those of us who weren’t watching closely, Gillan were still doing well. They continued to hit the singles charts, their final release being a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’. A faster tempo than the Motown legend’s original, I hadn’t realized how many embellishments Towns had inserted within the song, but Gers multi-tracked guitar for the song’s classic hook line holds well, and Ian Gillan throughout imbuing it with a great rock and roll spirit, with screaming vibrato and raucous roar adding flavor for good measure.
Overall, although the songs weren’t great and it is dated by its production, there are some gems on Magic and it is worth listening to.
Seven vinyl albums in all with their insert paperwork intact, presented in a box set, Gillan – The Vinyl Collection 1979-1982 traces the development of a band at a time when rock began to rule the world. That rock’s own face was changing proved challenging to a band that was already populated by veterans, but ultimately this is a strong collection… Yes there are some duff tracks, but they soon go by; rather appreciate the fantastic energy that pours out alongside the band’s musical versatility.
If you want a hard rock box set that questions the meaning of life while propping up a bar with mates, get hold of Gillan – The Vinyl Collection 1979-1982.
8 out of 10
- ‘Second Sight’
- Secret Of The Dance’
- ‘She Tears Me Down
- Puget Sound
- Dead Of Night
- Message In A Bottle
- Fighting Man
- Unchain Your Brain
- Are You Sure
- Time And Time Again
- No Easy Way
- Sleeping On The Job
- On The Rocks
- If You Believe Me
- Running White Face City Boy
- Higher And Higher
- Your Mother Was Right
- Abbey Of Thelema
- Trying To Get To You
- Come Tomorrow
- Dragon’s Tongue
- Post Fade Brain Damage
- Egg Timer
- Harry Lime Theme
- Future Shock
- Night Ride Out Of Phoenix
- The Ballad Of The Lucitania Express
- No Laughing In Heaven
- Sacre Bleu
- New Orleans
- Bite The Bullet
- If I Sing Softly
- Don’t Want The Truth
- For Your Dreams
- I’ll Rip Your Spine Out
- Men Of War
- Hadely Bop Bop
- Life Goes On
- Born To Kill
- No Laughing In Heaven
- No Easy Way
- Mutually Assured Destruction
- If You Believe Me
- New Orleans
- What’s The Matter
- Bluesy Blue Sea
- Caught In The Trap
- Long Gone
- Driving Me Wild
- Demon Driver
- Living A Lie
- You’re So Right
- Living For The City
- Demon Driver Reprise