Cactus – Evil Going On: The Atco Albums 1970-1972 (8CD Set)


There are some bands whose influence stretches far beyond record sales and other such measures of “success”, and Cactus are one such band. Formed from the ashes of Vanilla Fudge in 1969, this New York quartet were the inspiration for heavy metal, stoner, psych rock, and pretty much any band who played scuzzy riffs through a Marshall amp. Like many pioneers they never got due credit, but the four studio albums released during their original tenure still sound fresh and exciting, five decades later. Those albums have been collected (many with bonus cuts) along with four live discs and compiled as Evil Going On: The Atco Albums 1970-1972, a mammoth eight disc set that demands some long overdue re-evaluation.

CD1: Cactus (1970)

Nowadays we’ve become desensitised to heavy music, so it’s hard to emphasise just how ground-breaking (quite literally) Cactus’ eponymous debut was. I’m sure that opening cut ‘Parchman Farm’ had many a rocker spilling their cans of Party Seven when Carmine Appice’s thunderous drum roll appeared alongside Jim McCarty’s dexterous fretwork. It’s a high-octane, no-holds-barred slab of rhythm and blues which pushes all the needles into the red as Rusty Day supplements his raspy vocals with some swirling harmonica. It all adds up to an intense listening experience, and one that had rarely been surpassed at that juncture. However, Cactus fully understood the nuances of musical dynamics, and the following ’My Lady From South Of Detroit’ is the calm after the storm and rocks a Neil Young vibe. The pair create an interesting foil, with each acting as a mirror to highlight and enhance the other.

Released around the same time as Led Zeppelin’s sophomore album, I’d argue that Cactus is the far superior release, and its take on the blues is far more authentic. This album gets the upper hand because Cactus put their own spin on the genre, and the two covers the band wrestle with (the aforementioned ‘Parchman Farm’ and Willie Dixon’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’) become whole new beasts. It’s hard to know if Zeppelin were influenced by this record, but their II certainly shares a lot of similarities with this album. But Cactus’ sway radiates far and wide and you can hear where Robb Reiner (Anvil) learned his chops in ‘Feel So Good’ and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing owes a debt to ‘Let Me Swim’.

With Appice’s tumultuous drum work and McCarty’s demonic riffs, Cactus is often overlooked when people discuss the development of heavy metal, and this reissue only heightens that anomaly. Bolstered by four booming bonus tracks, this is the ultimate proto-heavy metal album.

CD2: One Way…Or Another (1971)

It never ceases to amaze me, the rapidity with which bands released albums in the ‘70s (as opposed to today when bands spend aeons recording records) and cactus struck while the iron was hot with One Way…Or Another. Following their debut by a mere seven months, their second album finds them more confident in their powers and moving beyond heavy blues to incorporate elements of soul and funk. As with their debut, this record contained two covers, and it’s one of those, an earth-shaking version of ‘Long Tall Sally’ that kicks off this opus, but it’s ‘Rockout, Whatever You Feel Like’ where the band really come into their own. Sounding crisper and sharper than anything they’ve ever recorded before, Cactus proves themselves a tight unit and One Way…Or Another benefits from placing Tim Bogert’s bass more prominent in the mix, which definitely adds vim to the band’s swagger.

By the time this album was released, Cactus had formulated a sound that was all their own. It was an Americanised brand of rock that had very little to do with the first British Invasion and drew upon their own rich musical heritage. Tracks such as ‘Big Mama Boogie – Parts I & II’ and ‘Song For Aries’ seem born from the Bayou and come with a type of Americana that’s been marinated in the Deep South. The perfect counterpoint to Cactus’ ‘Feel So Good’, a cover of Chuck Willis’ ‘Feel So Bad’ is liberally sprinkled with some New Orleans voodoo, and creeps like a black cat on a midnight escapade. This album is wider in scope, and more nuanced, than its predecessor, yet there’s still room for those chunky riffs, and they don’t come stockier than the one which powers the title track, and it brings the album to a suitably grandiose conclusion.

Three versions of ‘Long Tall Sally’ are added as bonus cuts and, in edited form, become far punchier than that which appeared on the album. ‘Hound Dog Sniffin’’ is also included, and the fact that such a strong track was left off the album shows what a rich seam the band were mining.

CD3: Restrictions (1971)

Their second release of 1971, Cactus released Restrictions just eight months after One Way…Or Another, and despite the quick turnaround there was no discernible drop in quality, and it built upon the good work of previous releases. Once again Cactus recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, and Restrictions benefits from a crystalline sound, and it finds each band member unfettered and ready to display their wares. Jim McCarty in particular unleashes plenty of solos on the opening (and title) track, and he doesn’t let up throughout the whole album. This record found Cactus looking beyond their shores for inspiration, and there’s a definite British blues, Rolling Stones influence on ‘Token Chokin’’. However, the almost nine-minute ‘Guiltless Glider’ is where Cactus really hit their stride, and its free form nature is very progressive, and it keeps the listener guessing in which direction the band will travel.

Another Willie Dixon cover makes an appearance, this time in the shape of ‘Evil’ (the song which gives this collection its title) and it finds Cactus getting low down and dirty, and dredging riffs from the ocean’s depths. Those British influences surface again, this time it’s the heavier end of Free, and makes ‘Evil’ sound bad and dangerous, which is exactly how a Willie Dixon track should sound. Songs such as ‘Alaska’ and ‘Sweet Sixteen’ are a tad tinny; there’s not enough bass on the bottom end, and subsequently they don’t have the requisite punch. That’s strange because ‘Bag Drag’ (and ‘Evil’ and ‘Guiltless Glider’) does, and that makes Restrictions an album of light and shade.

In retrospect, the tensions of opposites that comprised Restrictions could be construed as symptomatic of the trouble brewing in the ranks of Cactus. The band would fracture after this release, but that friction also helped make Restrictions the album it is.

CD4: Ot ‘N’ Sweaty (1972)

By the time the aptly titled ‘Ot ‘N’ Sweaty dropped in 1972 there had been big changes in the Cactus camp, with both bassist Tim Bogert and vocalist Rusty Day both departing. As replacements in came singer Pete French (Atomic Rooster/Leaf Hound) and keyboardist Duane Hitchings (who actually played on Restrictions) along with the previously unknown, 17-year-old guitarist Werner Fritzshings. With a change in personnel came a change in sound, and a tour with British rabble-rousers The Faces had rubbed off on Cactus. The first side of this record was recorded at the Mar Y Sol festival, Puerto Rico, and the three live cuts presented here are very much in the vein of Humble Pie (and The Faces) in that booze-soaked, good-time boogie that was very much in vogue in ‘72. It’s a departure from their previous, blues-based sound, yet it suits the band well, and it’s like a bottle of bubbly that sparkles, fizzes and tickles the nose.

After the explosive live cuts, the studio side of ‘Ot ‘N’ Sweaty had a lot to live up to, and while it does a good job, it doesn’t quite reach the same giddy heights. Things get off to a good start with ‘Bad Stuff’, a track that’s awash with swirling keys and French’s raspy vocals bearing more than a passing resemblance to Rod Stewart (which is exactly what the band were aiming for). ‘Bringing Me Down’ filters out all the blues, and the result is a track that tries a little too hard to be The Faces, and it falls a long way short. Fritzshings was a worthy addition, and his meaty riffs and razor-sharp solos prevent this studio side from descending into mediocrity, and the invention that characterised their first three records is largely missing here. If there was any doubt about the band’s direction then the Cockney knees-up rendition of ‘Underneath The Arches’ which closes the album, should set you straight.

Bringing Me Down’ was probably the weakest track on the album, and the edited single version included as a bonus track offers little in the way of redemption. However, it’s easy to hear why AC/DC were such big fans of this album (especially the live side), and I’m sure they studiously took notes to assist them on their voyage to global stardom.

CD5 & CD6: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs

Recorded on 17th December 1971 at the Ellis Auditorium, Memphis, disc number five captures Cactus in all their blues-soaked glory. A drawn-out version of ‘Long Tall Sally’ makes an interesting opener, and it certainly gets the crowd riled up. Cactus take full advantage of the live setting to get loose and experimental, and many of these tracks are elongated, but they rarely feel forced. Take ‘Evil’ for example, it’s stretched to over sixteen-minutes, and is the perfect vehicle to let both McCarty and Appice take solos, yet the band keep the frame of the original song. If ever proof were needed to the power of Cactus’ live prowess, then I’d play them this disc. The Yardbirds, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, none of them could hold a candle to the sheer velocity that Cactus display here. They are truly untouchable.

The sixth disc completes the Memphis gig with ‘Big Mama Boogie – Parts I & II’ and a rock n’ roll medley, the former illustrates that when it comes to high-octane live performances the first incarnation of Cactus could easily match mark II. Also included are barnstorming live cuts from the legendary Isle Of Wight shindig plus two tracks from a hometown gig in Buffalo, New York. Talking of the second incarnation, this disc closes with another three cuts from the band’s legendary appearance at the Mar Y Sol Festival (see CD4) in 1972. In terms of a full-on live assault, they match those live tracks on ‘Ot ‘N’ Sweaty note for note, and I can’t help pondering how more powerful that album could have been if it were fully live.

CD7 & CD8: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs Vol. 2

Closing this collection in fine style is a full set from the (in)famous Gilligan’s venue in New York, which was captured on 26th June 1971. Recorded using the Electric Lady Mobile Unit with Eddie Kramer at the helm (who engineered both One Way… and Restrictions) this concert benefits from having Ron Leejack on second guitar, and his interplay with Jim McCarty is simply stunning (and especially on ‘Parchman Farm’) and their twin guitar attack set the template for what would become the trademark heavy metal assault. In fact, the whole band is on fire with vocalist Rusty Day constantly riling up the crowd and Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert locking in to create a rhythm section that swings like a ten-ton hammer. A muscular version of ‘Evil’ brings this disc (and this collection) to rather fitting conclusion, and in 1971 there wasn’t a band who could touch Cactus’ prickly performance.

From the twin guitar attack of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden, to the riff heavy assault of AC/DC, to the stoner sludge of Corrosion Of Conformity, there’s perhaps not one metal band who doesn’t owe a debt to Cactus. Such was their impact on the music we know and love, that it’s sad to see them relegated to a mere footnote in metal history. Hopefully, this lavish box set, Evil Going On: The Atco Albums, should go a long way to elevating their profile, and garner some long overdue respect.

Track List:

CD1: Cactus (1970)

  1. Parchman Farm
  2. My Lady From South Of Detroit
  3. Bro. Bill
  4. You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover
  5. Let Me Swim
  6. No Need To Worry
  7. Oleo
  8. Feel So Good

Bonus Tracks:

  1. You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover (Single Edit)
  2. Rumblin’ Man
  3. The Sun Is Shining
  4. Sweet Little 16

CD2: One Way…Or Another (1971)

  1. Long Tall Sally
  2. Rockout, Whatever You Feel Like
  3. Rock ‘N’ Roll Children
  4. Big Mama Boogie – Parts I & II
  5. Feel So Bad
  6. Song For Aries
  7. Hometown Bust
  8. One Way…Or Another

Bonus Tracks:

  1. Long Tall Sally (Single Edit)
  2. Long Tall Sally (Mono Edit)
  3. Long Tall Sally (Stereo Edit)
  4. Hound Dog Sniffin’

CD3: Restrictions (1971)

  1. Restrictions
  2. Token Chockin’
  3. Guiltless Glider
  4. Evil
  5. Alaska
  6. Sweet Sixteen
  7. Bag Drag
  8. Mean Night In Cleveland

CD4: ‘Ot ‘N’ Sweaty (1972)

  1. Swim
  2. Bad Mother Boogie
  3. Our Lil Rock ‘N’ Roll Thing
  4. Bad Stuff
  5. Bringing Me Down
  6. Bedroom Mazurka
  7. Telling You
  8. Underneath The Arches

Bonus Tracks:

  1. Bringing Me Down (Single Edit)
  2. Bringing Me Down (Mono Edit)

CD5: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs (Disc I)

  1. Intro/Long Tall Sally
  2. Bad Drag
  3. Evil
  4. Parchman Farm
  5. Alaska
  6. Oleo
  7. No Need To Worry
  8. Let Me Swim

CD6: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs (Disc II)

  1. Big Mama Boogie – Parts I & II
  2. Medley: Heebie Jeebies/Money/Hound Dog/What’d I Say
  3. No Need To Worry
  4. Parchman Farm
  5. One Way…Or Another
  6. Bro. Bill
  7. Swim
  8. Bad Mother Boogie
  9. Our Lil Rock ‘N’ Roll Thing

CD7: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs Vol. 2 (Disc I)

  1. Intro/Tuning
  2. Long Tall Sally
  3. Parchman Farm
  4. Mellow Down Easy
  5. Feel So Bad
  6. Walkin’ Blues
  7. Scrambler/One Way Or Another
  8. Oleo

CD8: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs Vol. 2 (Disc II)

  1. Bro. Bill
  2. Token Chokin’
  3. Slow Blues (Medley)
  4. Heebie Jeebies/What’d I Say
  5. Evil