by Phil Freeman
Hard Stuff were one of those early ’70s bands assembled from ex-members of other bands. Some of those acts got huge (Bad Company, for example, was made up of former King Crimson, Mott the Hoople, and Free members), while others (like Ginger Baker’s Air Force and West, Bruce & Laing) made an album or two, then splintered again.
Two of the three members of Hard Stuff, guitarist John Du Cann and drummer Paul Hammond, had just left Atomic Rooster, an organ-driven act that made some excellent proto-metal albums, including Death Walks Behind You and In the Hearing of Atomic Rooster, both of which they played on. The third man, bassist John Gustafson, who’d been kicking around since the early 1960s without really breaking big. After Hard Stuff, he would join Roxy Music, playing on Stranded, Country Life, Siren, and the live Viva!, then become a member of Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan‘s solo band.
When they first decided to keep working together after leaving Atomic Rooster, Du Cann and Hammond attempted to swipe the band name from organist/leader Vincent Crane. When that didn’t work, they chose the name Bullet, and signed with Purple Records, a label run by Deep Purple‘s management that put out albums by DP members David Coverdale and Jon Lord, as well as also-ran glam and hard rock acts like Silverhead and Tucky Buzzard. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their second choice name, either; Bullet was already taken by a US band, so after releasing a single under that name (“Hobo”/”Sinister Minister”), they opted for Hard Stuff.
They started out as a quartet, with Harry “Al” Shaw on vocals, but he was fired during the recording of their debut album, 1972’s Bulletproof. He can still be heard singing on four songs, but he’s uncredited and doesn’t appear in any photos. (If you look at the album cover, you can tell it was supposed to feature four headshots and was hastily redesigned to show only three.) Gustafson took lead vocals on four songs, and Du Cann sang two.
Bulletproof is a loud, aggressive album for 1972. It’s not an overwhelming wall of sound like what Deep Purple were doing at the time, because as a power trio, only so much impact was possible; an organ can really turn a sports car into a tank, as DP, Atomic Rooster, Grand Funk Railroad and others realized. Plus, Gustafson was a wandering, Geezer Butler-ish bassist who was happier exploring a groove, even heading in prog-jazz directions at times, than simply dropping the hammer on people. Similarly, Du Cann plays a mix of scratchy funk and hard blues rock, and when he rips into a solo, it’s got a dirty, distorted sound, but he’s not really doing a proto-metal thing; Hard Stuff are closer to Black Cat Bones, Savoy Brown, or Killing Floor than to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple or Mountain. Hammond’s drumming is loose and clattery, but still drives the songs hard.
The group toured Europe, but never made it to the US; they spent a lot of time playing with Deep Purple (obviously), and opened for Uriah Heep as well. Unfortunately, during the recording of their second album, 1973’s Bolex Dementia, Du Cann and Hammond were badly injured in a car accident. Du Cann hurt his back and broke several ribs, while Hammond broke both his legs, requiring him to spend two months in the hospital. Following the release of the album (and a non-LP single, “Inside Your Life”/”(It’s) How You Do It!”), Hard Stuff broke up.
Bolex Dementia demonstrates sonic evolution, mostly by incorporating strong elements of funk. “Libel” is one of the band’s most strutting tracks, and even features a short passage of spoken, rhymed lyrics. (No, I’m not gonna argue that Hard Stuff invented hip-hop; I’m not Chuck Eddy.) That’s followed by “Ragman,” a hard rock track with a stomping, handclap-accented rhythm and a screeching Gustafson lead vocal that sounds uncannily like Nazareth‘s Dan McCafferty. Overall, it’s rhythmically tighter than Bulletproof, with greater discipline in the songwriting and less raw blues feel than before. When they slow down on the acoustic-guitar-dominated “Mermany,” the results are disappointing, but the excessively complex “Dazzle Dizzy” takes a few steps down a path Rush would spend their first two albums cutting. The album-ending title track combines pointless and annoying noise collages (including radio broadcasts about the IRA) with a heavy, thudding riff for an effect that’s sort of Budgie meets the Butthole Surfers. Intriguing for 1973, but not something you’d listen to for pleasure more than twice.
Bulletproof and Bolex Dementia, as well as the band’s sole single as Bullet and their non-LP single, have been remastered and gathered on a two-CD set, The Complete Purple Records Anthology 1971-1973. Stream it on Spotify: