by Phil Freeman
Atomic Rooster were one of the more interesting bands from the early ’70s UK rock scene. Organist Vincent Crane‘s melancholy lyrics, sung by others, sounded like the perspective of the guy on the bus who grabs your arm and won’t let go. This wasn’t surprising, since he had a history of mental illness. Crane got his first break in 1967, when he joined The Crazy World of Arthur Brown; he wrote the organ-and-horns arrangement for the band’s only real hit, “Fire.” During their first US tour, though, he had a nervous breakdown. He flew back to the UK and spent a few months in the Banstead Asylum. He rejoined TCWoAB in 1969, but when the band disintegrated (Brown briefly joined a commune) Crane and drummer Carl Palmer formed Atomic Rooster with bassist/vocalist Nick Graham. Their self-titled debut album was released in February 1970, but a month later Crane decided they needed a guitarist, and brought in John Du Cann; exit Graham and, three months later, Palmer, who left to start Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Between June 1969, when they formed, and March 1974, when they disbanded for the first time, Atomic Rooster had nine different lineups, employing a total of 10 members. But they also produced five surprisingly strong albums that blended funk, soul, psychedelia and hard rock.
The debut immediately establishes the template for their sound on the first two tracks, “Friday the 13th” and “And So to Bed.” Crane drives his organ a lot harder and less jazzily than, say, Ray Manzarek of the Doors had done; Graham’s vocals have a desperation that suits the lyrics, many of which seem to revolve around themes of betrayal or bad faith; and Palmer’s drumming, while nowhere near as busy as it would get with ELP, nevertheless does a lot more than just drive the music forward. (“Decline and Fall” is an instrumental on which he gets plenty of solo space.) “Broken Wings” adds horns to an overdriven soul ballad, and the closing track, “Before Tomorrow,” is another instrumental that nudges right up to the edge of aggro jazz fusion in the vein of Tony Williams Lifetime.
Atomic Rooster‘s second album, 1971’s Death Walks Behind You, included their biggest hit, “Tomorrow Night,” and was their most successful release. Its cover, featuring a reproduction of William Blake‘s print Nebuchadnezzar on a black background, with the band’s name in a stark white font and no album title listed, makes it look like it should be an album of Black Sabbath-ish doom metal, and in fact there are some very heavy tracks, most notably “Sleeping for Years,” built around a crushing blues riff. John Du Cann‘s guitar pounds the riff home like a jackhammer, and he overdubs searing lead bursts in the corners of the stereo field, while Crane’s organ and Paul Hammond‘s primitive drums blast away. The album-opening title track begins with haunted-house piano and off-putting guitar squeals, before launching into a slow groove that makes you want to nod your head like a pacing elephant. “I Can’t Take No More,” despite its title, is actually a pretty high-energy, garage-rockin’ tune with an excited vocal performance from Du Cann.
The follow-up, In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster, had a chaotic birth: Crane brought in singer Pete French of Leaf Hound, which undoubtedly pissed off Du Cann. The guitarist was fired, and Hammond left with him. They formed Bullet, who changed their name to Hard Stuff and released two albums (reviewed here) before breaking up. French’s vocals were very different from Du Cann’s; they mostly had a more conventional blues-rock quality, reminiscent of Free/Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers, but he could also tone it down for ballads. Crane plays more piano on In Hearing Of…, and Du Cann’s guitar is low in the mix, moving the music in a jazzy/proggy direction not that far from Van der Graaf Generator. Two instrumentals, “A Spoonful of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down” and “The Rock,” are excellent; the latter features horns, again.
The fourth Atomic Rooster album, Made In England, originally came wrapped in blue denim. Later pressings had a standard cardboard sleeve. It also featured another new lineup (Chris Farlowe on vocals, Steve Bolton on guitar, and Ric Parnell on drums), and a major shift in musical style. Crane had added an ARP synthesizer to his arsenal, alongside Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, and piano, and Farlowe, formerly of jazz-rock group Colosseum, was much happier singing over simmering grooves than hard-charging progressive rock, and the album’s first track, “Time Take My Life,” draws a line in the sand with the addition of not just horns, but strings as well. “Stand By Me,” the single (and not a cover), featured funky bass and Isaac Hayes-esque wah-wah guitar; the instrumental “Breathless” brought Crane’s piano up front as the band surged behind him; and while “All In Satan’s Name” seemed to return to the band’s old style, the lyrics (by Parnell) offered an antiwar message rather than Crane’s romantic desperation.
Farlowe and Parnell stuck around for 1975’s Nice ‘n’ Greasy, but Bolton departed, replaced by John Goodsall (credited as “Johnny Mandala”). It was their fifth album, but since the debut had never been released in the US, it was retitled Atomic Rooster IV there and given a different track listing— “Goodbye Planet Earth” and “Satan’s Wheel” were cut, and “Moods” and “What You Gonna Do” were added. The album also features an aggressive, horn-heavy remake of “Friday the 13th,” retitled “Save Me,” and a cover of soul songwriter Jackie Avery’s “Voodoo in You.” It’s the bluesiest Atomic Rooster album by far, settling deep into the groove and punching the songs home.
Crane reformed Atomic Rooster in 1980. They made two more albums: a second self-titled disc and Headline News. In 1989, he overdosed on painkillers.
All five of the band’s first run of albums are included in the new box set Sleeping For Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974, along with non-album singles, the alternate tracks from the US versions of their albums, and a few demos. Anyone interested in this multifaceted and underrated band should absolutely buy it. (Get it from Amazon.) A lot of early ’70s rock is great, but it can blur together—Atomic Rooster‘s music stands out.