It’s 1973, and the Yanks are about to pitch their first serious attempt at a hard rock/heavy metal album to challenge the long-standing British invasions across their shores. Until now, those long-haired limey layabouts have been making up their own rules. Toughened by WWII rationing and the invention of the Marshall amplifier, they bastardised the blues, stormed up the charts both sides of the Atlantic, and stole their women. The latter we’d like to claim as revenge for US troops waving silk stockings in our grandmothers’ faces while their young spouses were away fighting to free Europe, but the invention of the pill and boys taking advantage of a growing permissive society are the more likely.
Either way, the Brits hadn’t been playing cricket. The blues and psych-based bands initially big in the USA weren’t really pushing the envelope anymore. Kiss and Aerosmith would take the Brits’ sixties template and turning up the volume crossover into heavier territory within another few years, but no home-grown act was challenging the likes of seventies acts like Deep Purple for sheer raw power. It seemed unlikely that a guitarist who’d played sideman to Van Morrison and Edgar Winter was going to change that. But on paper, and most amazingly on their debut album they rose to the challenge.
By all accounts, Ronnie Montrose was a contrary individual, who could rub people up the wrong way. Similarities to England’s Ritchie Blakemore cannot be ignored, and creatively that is reflected by both in their search, not always successful, to ditch a winning formula in search of something fresh. More so, Montrose was troubled if not clinically depressed, leading to a tragic end. But before that, there was a fire burning bright.
He found a club singer called Sammy Hagar, with a voice that could belt-out R ‘n B with the passion of Otis, Sam & Dave and a nose-grinding James Brown. The singer’s long curly locks also approximated the zeitgeist vogue for British singers like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey. That Hagar suggested a drummer in Denny Carmassi, was enough of a Bonham joining Zeppelin similarity for that to take hold. Finding a bass player was another matter. They tried several, and by all accounts Bill Church (who’d played with Montrose in Van Morrison’s band, and previous local acts) would sit in on sessions, show those being auditioned what to play, but not get offered the job until late in the day.
Most have put that down to Montrose’s strained competitive ego that was already developing. I would have wholeheartedly agreed prior to hearing the albums featured on this I Got The Fire: Complete Recordings (1973-1976) six CD collection, alongside a smattering of the guitarist’s subsequent Gamma band tracks.
Musically, you can hear the beginnings of diversification right after the eponymous band debut Montrose. That album says it all, and delivers ten out of ten as a blueprint for how to make a hard rock album. The others, they drift, there are ideas and styles you can view in hindsight as being grabbed, then harnessed to their maximum, by other bands to make their own successful careers on. For Montrose, it seemed melodic shifts, chordal structures, and more artful directions he began reaching out for, but rarely attained, or had the same all-powerful team surrounding him to achieve.
A great band is not always about everyone being a fantastic musician. It’s more about the personalities within that band react together, socially and musically. On that debut Montrose album, you can’t deny any of the four individuals as a masterful player, but it’s the way they connected and meshed playing together that made them potentially all-conquering.
Take a piece from the jigsaw and it becomes something different. To my mind, it’s Bill Church who’s the defining piece in this musical picture. His full-bodied bass sound is ever-present, it’s rock and roll styled by definition but rarely predictable; listen to the live tracks featured on this collection or rare YouTube footage of him playing, most notably his solos on ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ and it’s not so much the inventive melodic rocking licks he produces but how he varies the tempo without missing the beat, always driving hard. Denny Carmassi as drummer has no choice but to play alongside and meet that challenge creatively.
At their most basic, noticeably in the demo and live versions offered, the early songs Montrose produced were for the most part rock and blues tunes, with Sammy and Ronnie as main songwriters, but what that rhythm section do makes the front-line shift gear too, with adrenalin and power bursting through nearly every seam. The band have compared to an American Led Zeppelin but to my mind their full-bodied shift is more akin to the bloody thuggery of the Who at their best with added moments of scintillating spectacle on guitar. Let us also not forget, all this sound was captured on tape by ace US producer Ted Templeman. A man who’d made his name with The Doobie Brothers (another band whose signature sound would diversify over their career) and would subsequently take the Montrose formula and make it an arena successful via Van Halen.
Five tracks a side on vinyl, Disc One on this collection offers the debut in sequential play. Opening with ‘Rock The Nation’ – It’s biker rock with pre-requisite 70s cowbell but a harder-edged attitude. That it proves a prequel to ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ that struts itself between laid back, cock-sure attitude and revved-up no-messing-about hard rock, says something; with Bill Church’s bass driving it like a car-chase game of chicken where there may be no turning back from heading straight off over a cliff with a humongous fiery explosion expected as climax.
‘Space Station #5’ may start off with weird sonics of the kind intended pop and rock’s tried to invoke outer space since The Tornadoes’ ‘Telstar’ but a simple and explosive riff then ensues with Hagar delivering a sci-fi story featuring tropes from assorted novels of the time, yet to be adapted for the big screen – Its crash, bang, wallop guitar conclusion calls to mind Rush’s similarly themed 2112, but more so there’s food for thought that as Montrose continued to both dip their toes into outer-space themes while offering a more diverse, and keyboard added, sound, they possibly also influenced another Canadian band in Prism and Wales’ Lone Star too.
‘I Don’t Want It’ is basically a boogie number with big shout-out choruses, but Montrose’s squealing guitar takes it beyond the obvious, while opening the original side two vinyl version ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ is a party that starts Friday night and doesn’t finish until you mother orders you to church on a Sunday morning. It’s infectious – Hager’s one liner asides hit the mark and the band rock the joint. ‘Rock Candy’ takes ‘The Lemon Song’ and more or less transplants it to the opposite sex, or at least it did back in the day when language implied there was less room for misinterpretation. Just innuendo. Whether the lyrics were viewed as sexist or sexy back the remains open to reinterpretation. Carmassi’s purposely pondering unrelenting heavy pounding centres this number in a manner similar to Bonham’s opening for ‘When The Levee Breaks’ (and, yeah, I know both these Led Zeppelin references are cover tunes), what’s more, the demo for the Montrose number that features on Disc Two reveals the song to have always been Zeppelin influenced but that drum sound was a later addition, with the more proto-Zeppelin Volume II style guitar riff Montrose originally applied being removed in favour of power chords.
‘One Thing On My Mind’ is again basically a hoe-down boogie track with tasty skewered-up guitar riffing, some dirty turnarounds and a clear-lined solo cutting through. ‘Make It Last’ might move a little slower but it’s no less rocking, and more a song about living by your principles than any sexual shenanigans; here Montrose’s guitar shifts between sounding like a revolver’s trigger being cocked and a slow mean slide delivery, that, overall, the song has a The Rolling Stones vibe being more pronounced near the end as backing vocals enter the picture.
Even the most basic tracks have additional things going on. The rest of Disc One and Disc Two are filled with what might be considered filler by comparison, but still worth a listen. There are edited mono and stereo editions of tracks designed for radio and whatever hi-fi or monogram player you could get your hands on back then; demos that as noted in the case of ‘Rock Candy’ show differences and in the subtler fleeter-footed rendition of ‘I Don’t Want It’ (that I possibly prefer) are most certainly audibly different. Similarly, a track like ‘Shoot Us Down’ that you’d think was Hagar fronting AC/DC is then not quite sure whether to go in a pop rock or groovy spaced place. A large chunk of the second CD is given to a KSAN Radio Session where they deliver bare bone tracks from the debut studio album, alongside some covers that you can take our leave.
More so than Van Halen, I think most people would agree US bands like Starz, Y & T, and Riot had to be taking note of what they could hear on that debut. But all was not coming up roses, with 1974’s Paper Money, Bill Church was out on his ear and Alan Fitzgerald installed as bass player. Disc Three is given over to this record, along with more single editions of tracks. This was a different band and record for several reasons. As I noted, Church’s plectrum-struck bass playing helped define a band sound, but the problem with that maybe could be that you might not be able to grow as a band, song-wise, if what’s, to this day, considered a rhythm section instrument in the rock world; they can flip guitarists in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as much as they like but lose Flea and they’re done for, likewise any guest appearance from Jack Bruce could never have been disguised. But sometimes a style can be too ever-present.
Fitzgerald is an able musician but anonymous enough to play the part a song requires and possibly, on a personal front, not get in the way of the guitarist’s growing ego. Carmassi responds to his new rhythmic partner suitably, evolves as a musician but we lose his heavier pounding. What’s possibly most striking is the harsher Sam & Dave rasp Hagar issued across the length of the debut now becomes more milder mannered; one might say he’s learnt to sing into the microphone rather than shout. Whatever, collectively, the sound is changed. The songs too are different. The Rolling Stone prove a bigger influence, and one wonders if the cover of ‘Connection’ also hinted there were problems actually constructing numbers? Opening number ‘Underground’ fits that Jagger/Richards template but with added pop hooks and an intimation of further science fiction narratives to come.
‘The Dreamer’ harkens back to the hard stomp and riffing of but a year previous, while the likes of ‘Starliner’, ‘Spaceage Sacrifice’ and ‘We’re Going Home’ are the overriding space-age themes at work. Opening the album, or possibly stage shows with the instrumental ‘Starliner’ might’ve rendered this a more popular, or renowned number – It’s certainly the prototype for the kind of music guys like Joe Satriani have made a healthy career with. Aside from sci-fi themes, there are also acoustic guitars introduced to add effect on this album.
Title track ‘Paper Money is an odd one. If someone told you this was a late 70s Foghat number you wouldn’t blink an eye. Fitzgerald’s bass is up in the mix with a simple funk bop, drums play out in military fashion, and guitar interjects with riffing asides while Hagar is probably making some statement on national fiscal responsibility over social wealth but he’s leaving out the actual words that make that point, I should note that the mono edition of this offered as part of the bonus tracks proves a much punchier rendition.
Somewhere amid all this, on Side 2 of the vinyl edition is the track from where this collection gets its name. ‘I Got The Fire’ features a humongous stirring riff, that’s actually not that difficult to play once you get your hands on fretboard, but, hey, let’s bow down before Ronnie Montrose for having come up with the lithesome monster. A torrent of notes pours forth, Carmassi steps hard on the bass pedal he’s been going steady on all album, and between the heavy-duty riffing Hagar catcalls and purrs with considered macho passion. Disc Four is another KSAN Radio Session by the band and the live version’s both heavier and dirtier, and the non-album tracks are again at least worth a listen.
Why the song was hardly mentioned by the cognoscenti for so long remain a mystery. The young Van Halen all but did a cover version on their debut with ‘I’m On Fire’, same melody but without the riff. And, while the riff itself may have had its precedent the year previously in Budgie’s ‘Melt the Ice Away’, it wasn’t really until young skinny English lads having bought Paper Money with their paper round money grew up to join New Wave of British Heavy Metal Bands and began utilising such upfront flash riffs that the formula started proving its worth, and, yeah, Iron Maiden may later have covered the number itself but head back to Def Leppard’s debut EP and tell me they hadn’t been listening to that track too. Decades later, a track that’s out of place on this more subdued album, has got its due.
A year later, it’s Hagar who either got his marching orders or jumped ship depending on who’s telling the story. Montrose himself, is now taking over production duties, brought in Bob James as vocalist and is introducing Jim Alcivar on keyboards. It’s title Warner Bros. Presents Montrose! Maybe old hat show business but it was actually their second highest ranking chart album. It proves a curious mix of band-written numbers and covers as diverse as Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ (heavy blues rock Zeppelin style) and Alan Price’s ‘O Lucky Man’ (very Manfred Mann’s Earth Band).
Over the course of these albums, you can hear Ronnie Montrose seeking to develop different sounds and textures with music, keyboards becoming more important in that respect, and, aside from aforementioned bands like Prism, Tom Scholz had to be gauging the pros and cons of this as he developed Boston.
Disc three is where we find Warner Bros. Presents Montrose! and it opens with ‘Matriarch’ that’s 10cc’s ‘Rubber Bullets as if played by Germany’s Lucifer’s Friend for an AOR hard rock audience. Don’t get me wrong, all the various bits sound good, but whereas on their debut you were hearing a new sound, this is one seemingly cherry-picked from some odd bedded partners. ‘All I Need’ begins as an acoustic partly Beatles-flavoured number before rocking up with a sonically charge lead melody. As a song it’s fine but hardly world defining, take it apart, rebuild it and it’s not too far removed from something called ‘More Than A Feeling’.
Some of the more offbeat tracks on Paper Money ‘Whaler’ on this record bear passing resemblance to early Foreigner, that is until Mick Jones and Ian McDonald put aside their Spooky Tooth and King Crimson pasts and concentrated on delivering belting rockers and ballads to suit Lou Gramm’s voice. Sadly, Bob James’ voice wasn’t in the same category and pails before Hagar’s. It’s a fair voice, but it does not command your attention, though it’s true the music doesn’t really give a singer something to get his vocals round. That said, ‘Whaler’ has a sense of mysticism, weaves acoustics and electrics intriguingly, and steers towards a lyrical direction Montrose would purse with his subsequent band, Gamma.
The snaking riffed ‘Dancin’ Feet’ follows and is akin to the kind of music Ritchie Blackmore was laying down on his first Rainbow album. The delightful acoustic instrumental ‘One And A Half’ was also playing in near enough the same faux-mediaeval courtly estates Blackmore had started making deference to. The similarities between the guitarists via the public moody personas aside, whereas our Ritchie was about to make a defining album with his next release, Ronnie Montrose wasn’t connecting with a large audience in the same way. Despite which, ‘Clown Woman’ with its slow bluesy pop rocking pre-empts the kind of material Blackmore would pursue once he brought Joe Lynn Turner into his band – James sings soulfully and Montrose really gets deep into the extended soling, and it deserves a good listen. The comparisons between the pair continue with album closer ‘Black Train’ that proves another speedy riff-happy surprise, which if you told me Iron Maiden had also covered would come as no surprise. It’s far from perfect but it continued to show the talent was there, just not being utilised properly, whether due to some self-destructing tendencies or changing musical tastes we could debate forever.
Disc Six features 1976’s last hurrah with Jump On It, possibly more known for its crotch shot album cover than the tracks on it. That Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas was brought in to help with this project makes you wonder if he had some input in that cover. Apparently only three tracks feature bass guitar courtesy of Randy Jo Hobbs formerly of The McCoys and both Winter brothers’ bands, while Montrose’s bass buddy in the Edgar Winter band, Dan Harman, contributes two songs. Keyboards and related effects took great precedence. On this one, but that said, ‘Let’s Go’ works – A souped boogie whereby Carmassi is now pre-empting the imminent new wave tribal drum beat sound, while Montrose is laying multiple wailing lead lines throughout the number. ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ is a catchy AOR hard rocker, that could’ve been a minor hit, then steps outside its remit with Carmassi again playing up the rhythms before stirring Montrose into hyper-activity on his six-string. That James’ voice is pitched a little higher, straining at the bit also adds to the requisite tension, and, overall, his voice comes across much better on this album anyway.
‘Tuft-Sedge’ proves another mood pieced instrumental, though more keyboard, acoustic and bongo styled. The piano opening for ‘Music Man’ has the listener waiting to make John Miles comparisons and while there are similarities, it is more a breathy-voiced glistening folkish, slightly proggy-power ballad with further delicious solo guitar playing weaved in.
‘Jump On It’ is a sign of the times it was being written in one-part Cheap Trick, the other The Cars, and a frenzied guitar solo raging out towards then end. ‘Rich Man’ is a country rock ballad you’d not be surprised have heard some Sunset Boulevard sleaze band do a cover of on MTV a few years down the line. ‘Crazy For You’ is a 60s throwback in song structure but given a kind of ELO meets the Baker-Gurvitz Army gloss. More orchestrations ensue with ‘Merry Go-Round’ playing in a Roxy meets Styx pomp rock manner, but again those kind-of-bands had to have been listening to the kind of music Montrose had been putting out.
As a collection of songs, this final album is not as bad as past press would have it; they just don’t ignite in the way you’d hoped. This final disc also features assorted edits for ‘Music Man’ and ‘Let’s Go’, though true completists might also have liked 1987’s Mean, wherein Mr Montrose once again applied the band name for an album featuring future Kingdom Come/Scorpions drummer James Kottak and John Edwards who would have a stint singing with Foreigner.
Sammy Hagar would off course go onto a solo career, then join Van Halen himself. When he first starting touring over here, Bill Church was his bass player, but has sadly had little wider recognition beyond Montrose-related live reunions. Denny Carmassi would go onto pound the beat for Heart, Coverdale-Page and Whitesnake. Fitzgerald would go onto join Gamma and become an offstage live keyboard player for Van Halen. James played and recorded with assorted acts, passing away in 2021. The main man himself would form Gamma and perform as a true solo artist to differing success over the years, in succumbing to cancer, he apparently took his own life, also in 2021. May he rest in peace.
Was it a case of too much too soon with Montrose? Their musical influence felt across the ages rather than their bank balances swelled. It’s a damn shame, but if you like American hard rock, and want to hear how that sound was forged and developed back in the 70s this collection needs to be heard. Plus, there are some staggeringly terrific numbers once heard hard to be forgot.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- I Got The Fire: The Complete Recordings (1973-1976) is released via Cherry Red Records and is available now.
- Ronnie Montrose Website
- Track list:
Disc 1: Montrose (1973)
- Rock The Nation
- Bad Motor Scooter
- Space Station #5
- I Don’t Want It
- Good Rockin’ Tonight
- Rock Candy
- One Thing On My Mind
- Make It Last
- Rock The Nation (Mono) Bonus track
- Rock The Nation (Stereo) Bonus track
- Space Station #5 (Mono edit) Bonus track
- Space Station #5 (Stereo edit) Bonus track
Disc 2: Demos (1973)/Live KSAN Radio Session. Record Plant, Sausalito, CA, USA 21st April 1973*
- One Thing On My Mind (Demo)
- Shoot Us Down (Demo)
- Rock Candy (Demo)
- Good Rockin’ Tonight (Demo)
- I Don’t Want It (Demo)
- Make It Last (Demo)
- Live KSAN Radio Session Intro*
- Good Rockin’ Tonight*
- Rock Candy*
- Bad Motor Scooter*
- Shoot Us Down*
- One Thing On My Mind*
- Rock The Nation*
- Make It Last*
- You’re Out Of Time*
- Roll Over Beethoven*
- I Don’t Want It*
Disc 3: Paper Money (1974)
- The Dreamer
- I Got The Fire
- Spaceage Sacrifice
- We’re Going Home
- Paper Money
- Paper Money (Stereo edit) Bonus track
- Paper Money (Mono edit) Bonus track
- 11 Connection (Mono edit) Bonus track
Disc 4: Live KSAN Radio Session, Record Plant, Sausalito, CA, USA 26th December 1974
- I Got The Fire
- Rock Candy
- Bad Motor Scooter
- Spaceage Sacrifice
- One And A Half
- Roll Over Beethoven
- Space Station #5
Disc 5: Warner Bros. Presents Montrose! (1975)
- All I Need
- Twenty Flight Rock
- Dancin’ Feet
- O Lucky Man
- One And A Half
- Clown Woman
- Black Train
- Matriarch (Mono edit, Bonus Track)
Disc 6: Jump On It (1976)
- Let’s Go
- What Are You Waiting For?
- Music Man
- Jump On It
- Rich Man
- Crazy For You
- Merry Go-Round
- Music Man (Stereo edit) Bonus Tracks
- Music Man (Mono edit) Bonus Tracks
- Let’s Go (Stereo edit) Bonus Tracks
- Let’s Go (Mono edit) Bonus Tracks