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"The world is not an opera - a danger zone"

Class E

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: Hard Rock, Soul Music
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years



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I am definitely not going to hunt for every secondary and tertiary roots-rock band of the late Sixties/early Seventies, considering the hundreds and thousands of performers of the epoch, but there are probably at least a few such "minor" bands well worth remembering from that epoch. Stone The Crows fall into that limited category - a band that actually tried to do something more than simply cash in on the roots-rock craze of the era, but never got to really doing anything much for various reasons, from artistic ones (lack of sufficient songwriting talent) to personal ones (loss of a key member in full flight) to commercial ones (lack of financial success). Yet throughout their existence, they still managed to come up with four interesting records, three of which I have, and they were way too tightly involved in all the musical happenings of the epoch not to be noticed.

Stone The Crows were discovered in the late Sixties by the infamous Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, who was so impressed by their "incendiary stage show", as they say, that he immediately took them on board, but seems like the band was never as dear to his heart as the four metallic pets, or maybe the band was just too 'normal' to get any real recognition at the time, whatever. Their initial strength was in the power approach: led by the powerhouse vocal section of Jim Dewar and Maggie Bell, accompanied by the stormy guitar of Les Harvey and the paranoid organ of John McGuinnis, they reinvented traditional soul, blues and R'n'B numbers and made their own ones so as to mount a never-ending wall-of-sound attack on the listener. Their debut album captures that initial atmosphere in all of its glory - unfortunately, it also demonstrates that one thing the band never had was a first-rate songwriter. Despite that, Maggie Bell firmly positioned herself as one of Britain's leading vocalists of the time, with a powerful, raspy masculine croak that lay somewhere in between Janis Joplin and Rod Stewart, i.e. had the androgynous flavour if you get my drift.

On subsequent albums, the band tried to expand its approach, incorporating more elements into their music, but whatever be, they never dared to venture beyond the realms of roots-rock; fortunately, that realm was huge enough to let them toy around with jazz, folk, soul, gospel, occasionally even funk (check out Harvey's guitar work on 'On The Highway' from Ontinuous Performance for that matter). In the process, Les Harvey grew into a real guitar wizard, not exactly flashy or tooth-grinding or ass-kicking (although probably very much heroin-shooting), but with a really neat technique of mixing jazzy and bluesy elements, coming up with different guitar tones all the time and elevating subtlety in roots-rock to a whole new level of conscience. Okay, maybe not the latter, but there's still no denying the guy's creative growth, so cruelly and abruptly brought to a halt upon his tragic death in 1972. Who knows where the band could have gotten had he stayed alive: they were really ready to break it big, with lots of touring and press coverage and even Melody Maker nominating Maggie Bell as best female vocalist of 1971 and stuff. But Les perished and brought everything to a halt.

Upon his death, Stone the Crows only managed to finish their fourth album, but the spark was gone, and while the album itself was pretty solid, nobody just really wanted to do it any more. Maggie Bell went on to have a half-successful solo career but never really gained the Janis Joplin fame anyway. Ah fate, thou art cruel - maybe if it were Maggie who got electrocuted instead of Les, the legend would help her get all the recognition she could have desired.

In any case, like I said, Stone the Crows are a pretty important link in the general scheme of things in the early Seventies. Besides the Peter Grant connection, one shouldn't forget that Jim Dewar later gained fame as the main vocalist for Robin Trower, and Harvey's replacement, Jimmy McCulloch, later joined Wings for a brief stint. Apart from that, the band really got deeply enmeshed in the general touring business of the epoch and toured as opening acts for just about everybody who mattered, from Joe Cocker to Frank Zappa to Roxy Music even. And while their records are mostly out of print, I would recommend any blues-rock aficionado not to miss any of them if you happen to fall upon 'em. A certain amount of pleasure guaranteed.

Line-up: Les Harvey - guitar; Jim Dewar - bass, vocals; Colin Allen - drums; John McGinnis - keyboards; Maggie Bell - vocals. Dewar and McGuinnis left, 1971, replaced by Steve Thompson on bass and Ronnie Leahy on keyboards. Les Harvey perished, 1972, replaced by Jim McCulloch. Band dispersed sometime in mid-1973.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Whitebread soul at its best on the first side, dated incoherent crap on the second one.


Track listing: 1) The Touch Of Your Loving Hand; 2) Raining In Your Heart; 3) Blind Man; 4) Fool On The Hill; 5) I Saw America.

Apparently, from the very beginning Stone The Crows decided to fill in the niche that was somehow liberated after the demise of the classic Big Brother & The Holding Company lineup. They lose it in one respect: as classy a vocalist as Maggie Bell is, the inevitable comparison with Janis Joplin cannot be won, not the least due to the fact that Maggie's full vocal potential rests unexplored here, partially due to strange self-limitations, partially due to ugly muddy production. They win, however, in the respect that the band actually had two talented vocalists at the point of its creation: Maggie's feminine vocal is perfectly opposed by the masculine vocal of James (here Jim, he would later 'grow up' to his full name as the trusty sidekick to Robin Trower) Dewar. Besides, they also win by simply being more technically efficient, with Les Harvey being able to both rip it up on his six-string when needed and play in a restrained and economic mood when necessary. Plus, they have a nice organ going for them courtesy of John McGinnis, and what else do you need?

Stone The Crows isn't exactly a 'heavy' album by itself, but despite being released in 1969, it certainly sounds like a Seventies album in many respects. A fat, gritty, powerful sound, a sidelong epic, a thoroughly humorless and 'desperate' delivery, all these features probably explain why none other than Peter Grant actually took a liking to the band. There's nothing particularly innovative about the songs on here, but it's pretty strange anyway that it failed to establish Maggie Bell as one of Britain's premiere vocalists - supposedly a hot white soul singerine wasn't exactly the forte of the sensitive British public of the time. Or maybe, since Janis was still alive, people were willing to go for the 'real thing' rather than an inferior, if still solid, imitation.

Whatever, the first side of the album is among the most powerful sides of British blues-rock/R'n'B of the epoch I've ever heard. The album opens with two Harvey - Dewar originals, the first of which, the slow-burning 'Touch Of Your Loving Hand', can seem a bit too plodding and stiff; besides, I already hear all the "faux-soul, disgusting faux-soul!" cries of Temptations and Jackson Five purists out there, but since it's a well-known fact that all purists are fascists by definition, we'll just leave it at that. Actually, I don't think even that many purists would want to castigate this stuff - Dewar and Bell duet with each other at the top of their powers, and the track slowly but gradually progresses towards a tremendous climax, assisted by a tasteful guitar solo and dreamy organ background. And then along comes track number two, the fast funky 'Raining In Your Heart', with a red-hot sizzling guitar line and Derek-and-the-Dominoes-like organ and magnificent vocal parties whose only flaw is being buried so goddamn deep under the guitar. Shoot the engineer. One of the best ever songs by the band, kudos for the organ riff and the terrific drive anyway. And a climactic ending.

They then proceed to leave Harvey and Bell alone in the studio, Les playing a great bluesy pattern and Maggie impersonating the 'Blind Man' - the obvious spot to actually make a careful assessment of the girl's voice. MIGHTY voice for sure. And while we're at it, I wonder if that astutest and fattest of managers, Peter Grant, ever had the obvious idea of having Maggie try out the position of Robert Plant? Heh heh. One thing's for sure, Maggie would have blown the Lion Mane straight out of the window. And of course, Robbie would never have managed to perform such a beautiful version of 'Fool On The Hill' as Maggie does - they arrange the song as a straightforward soul number, and unbelievable as it seems, it works, although it took me a couple listens to get used to the band totally slaughtering a vital part of the original vocal melody in favour of 'free-form' vocal twists. But they're actually fine.

Too bad the band went a bit too far in the 'artsy' direction and entirely ruined the second side of this album, thus mercilessly massacring a fine, sincere, raw and powerful experience. 'I Saw America' is an eighteen-minute pastiche of blues, folk, and hard elements, destined to represent the band's impressions of their first visit to the States. It's hopelessly pretentious and therefore inadequate - had the guys really been experts in Americana subjects, they definitely wouldn't stoop to this kind of this stuff, and as 'novices' in these matters, the track is well, made to look really stupid. The segments don't mesh together well; the generic blues tidbits look painfully generic, as if they thought that incorporating the little pieces into one large medley freed them from the necessity of actually making them interesting, and to make matters worse, there's a sort of dissonant free-jazz passage towards the end of the song which is sloppy, hopelessly amateurish and so boring you hardly ever get to the actual end of the track - too bad, since the last three minutes, where they all of a sudden launch into a grumbly heavy rock jam with Harvey spitting out rapid fire licks and Dewar pounding on his bass like a true mountaineer (the band was of Scottish origin, remember), is the composition's best and only memorable passage. But, of course, it hardly justifies sitting through the first fifteen minutes anyway.

So, I guess, this is a "Sixties" album after all, in that it's one of those usual cases for that epoch when a great first half of the album can be hideously annihilated by a thoroughly dated 'experimental' second half. Kinda like Love's Da Capo. You know what I mean. Don't let that stop you from loving the first side, though: the first side doesn't at all sound amateurish.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

We progress! We get more serious! We get more distinct! But we sure love to exteeeeeend our songs.

Best song: DANGER ZONE

Track listing: 1) Sad Mary; 2) Friend; 3) Love; 4) Mad Dog And Englishmen; 5) Things Are Getting Better; 6) Ode To John Law; 7) Danger Zone; [BONUS TRACK:] 8) Things Are Getting Better (single version).

It's essentially a toss-up between this record and Ontinuous Performance for best album, but at least this one doesn't have the lengthy bore of 'Niagara' on it, so it wins by a narrow margin. Never mind, though. Stone the Crows weren't made for ratings, they're too consistent for their own good as far as "decent unexceptional music" goes. That's the trouble with all them friggin' one star bands.

Anyhoo, this album took a long time to appreciate - there's nothing even remotely approaching the brainstorm of 'Raining In Your Heart' on the band's second album, and instead, the band mostly concentrates on witty mid-tempo R'n'B/blues/ballad numbers, most of them structured as sort of a 'duel' between Maggie's heated vocals and Harvey's complex guitar playing. Neither of these elements is destined for immediate appreciation, I'm afraid; at first, you get the impression that the band entirely lost whatever hook-creating abilities they had, instead going for nothing more than a second-rate "soul" atmosphere. But then you start actually noticing how wonderful certain guitar parts are sounding, and how fine Maggie's vocal parts actually suit them. Take, for instance, the album's most energetic piece, the opening 'Sad Mary' dedicated to the sad demise of Queen Mary Stuart (bloody Scots, really couldn't forget that one!). It's all within the traditional rootsy pattern, BUT notice how many times it shifts the mood and the tempo? Starts out as a rough hasty blues-rocker with a fast organ part, then, just about fifty seconds later, slows down to an ominous shuffle with creepy one-note chords from Les that seem to scream PAIN! PAIN! PAIN! with their very existence, then goes into the quiet moody mid-section which is entirely Maggie's domain, goes back into the main section and then transforms into a gruesome jam for a few minutes. Maggie throws on a real theatrical performance, perfectly capturing the self-confident stance of a proud and majestic regina about to die, and Mr Harvey sure provides her with an emotionally resonant guitar part to boot. Whatever.

In any case, even if Dewar has almost entirely been removed from lead vocal duties in favour of Maggie, the album, at least in its first part, still belongs to Les. 'Sad Mary', as well as 'Friend' and 'Love', all six-minute plus minor epics, cannot really be viewed as anything more than vehicles for Harvey's showcasing his guitar skills. They're not superhuman, and they may not capture your heart like, say, a well-felt Clapton guitar solo can, but they display a very convincing combination of technical tricks (all within the blues scale mostly, of course, but that scale might be trickier than what you usually think of it! plus, there's much more of a jazz influence than could be suspected) and subtle mood-setting moves. The trebley riff of 'Friend', for instance, certainly could appeal to your subconscious - with a near-psychedelic flavour and that wonderful mild tone. Then Harvey moves on to a super-smooth, flawless wah-wah solo along the lines of Alvin Lee (sometimes just as speedy as Alvin), but more restrained so that you don't get the urge to bang your head against the nearest hard object, but instead just slowly melt in your chair. As for 'Love', it's the tightest number of the three, a soul/gospel-influenced shuffle underpinned by a repetitive and very decisive-sounding organ riff - it's a delight to hear the band play in tight rhythmic mode, even if it doesn't do much in the memorability sphere. Harvey's got a thin meek guitar tone on here, playing all kinds of proto-Mark Knopfler minimalistic tricks that any solid blues guitarist would appreciate.

Things kinda get out of control on the next four tracks. 'Mad Dogs And Englishmen' is kind of a funny tribute to the time of the band's touring with Joe Cocker - a hilarious folk-rocker without too much substance, but certainly essential in its relieving the convoluted foggy atmosphere of the three guitarfests. 'Things Are Getting Better' is a soulful ballad with a half-catchy melody that seems somewhat generic to me, but I couldn't explain why so I'll pass. It's got power, definitely, but there's a bit too much power as opposed to definite vocal hook, which has always irritated me about black gospel singers and irritates me twice as much about white gospel singers. The title track is almost progressive rock, for God's sake, with its constant shifts of tempo and time signature and a strange 'noodling' extension of every sung/played note that doesn't exactly stand up for entertainment values - despite the fact that the song is dedicated to London policemen.

Fortunately, the record ends on a blistering note: a humble tribute to Curtis Mayfield, Maggie Bell's shining hour on 'Danger Zone'. It's her 'Summertime', I guess, if I'm allowed to go on with Janis Joplin comparisons. Les also shines with his ominous, tired, desperate licks throughout - no doubt, some of the band's fans could have referred to the song as a prediction for the catastrophe that befell the band a year later, with Les certainly falling victim to the very 'bloody progress' that Curtis, and now Maggie, have been singing about. It's a Godly performance indeed, an excellent conclusion to the album even if the current CD edition actually includes an abbreviated single version of 'Things Are Getting Better' as a totally unnecessary bonus track.

All in all, guitar aficionados and fans of intelligent British roots-rock in general should definitely track this sucker down. It's a bit lethargic in places, sure, but c'mon now, be open-minded about it, lethargy isn't such a bad thing after all. Helps get you out of the danger zone.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Less guitar-oriented, more good-time-oriented. Kinda scary considering the circumstances.


Track listing: 1) On The Highway; 2) One More Chance; 3) Penicillin Blues; 4) King Tut; 5) Good Time Girl; 6) Niagara; 7) Sunset Cowboy.

The band's fourth and last album is kinda misguided. Les Harvey, the band's creative soul and main musical talent, tragically died onstage in the middle of a tour; apparently, there was something wrong with the equipment and when he tried to check it and touched his microphone and guitar at the same time, he received his instantaneous death blow from the current. (So be warned, Ritchie Blackmore!). This left the band absolutely stranded - it's a wonder they actually managed to finish the tour, engaging Peter Green for a couple of dates, and release the ensuing album, which was only about half-finished by the time. So you get Harvey playing on most of the tracks, but for several of them the band hired a new member, Jimmy McCulloch, later of Wings' fame (the one guy with a strong heroin addiction, remember? He who penned 'Medicine Jar' as a warning and died shortly afterwards).

Goes without saying that since the album was already pretty much planned out and most of the songs written, it couldn't look like a tribute to Les or anything; in fact, it's almost creepily life-asserting and cheerful in the light of those gruesome events. The band had by then almost completely overcome their 'artsy' mood, and most of the tracks are pretty straightforward blues/blues-rock as far as melody goes. That said, the arrangements are maybe stronger than ever and the production their best up to date, long gone are the days when Maggie's voice couldn't be heard because the drunken engineer stuffed it deep down under the organ mattress. And the songs themselves may not be a gran che, but they're... uh... well I like them. Maggie's the star of the show again, just about on every single track, so if you don't happen to appreciate her voice, please note that Harvey's playing on here is rather restrained, so maybe you'd better stay away. In fact, Harvey only really shines (that is, shows off!) on 'King Tut', a strangely ominous instrumental that could be considered as a self-necrologue of sorts. The minimalistic weeping guitar licks in the background can only be compared with the agonizing howls of an old dying wolf, if you'll pardon my little comparison.

But just as you're ready to think that the mood of 'King Tut' is what really matters for this album and that from now on it's the feeling of sadness and loss that will permeate the rest of the record, the band comes up with 'Good Time Girl', a totally straightforward and totally life-asserting and totally cheerful ditty that begins with the lines 'I'm not a black magic woman or a voodoo queen, I don't make magic potions like they do in New Orleans'. Maggie later asserted that the song was actually devoted to Peter Green, whom many people perceived as a dark mysterious Voodooist and all that crap due to the eerie quality of his music and lyrics, but who in fact was a pretty normal and mundane person. In any case, this simplistic, yet wonderfully catchy rocker, where Maggie sounds closer to Rod Stewart than she ever did, earned them a Top of the Pops appearance by getting as high as #12 on the British charts - something unbelievable for such a generally commercially unsuccessful band in their last gasp of creativity.

Other highlights of the album include the traditional 'Penicillin Blues' which is, well, a blues, country blues with slide guitar and all the necessary attributes you can guess about, so once again it's mainly Maggie's pair of sizzly chords that makes the listening process worthwhile, and one of the few really gorgeous ballads they have ever written: Ron Leahy's 'One More Chance', which isn't really way too different from 'Things Are Getting Better' but watch out for the hooks. One could make an argument that powerful female vocal hooks in soulful ballads are among the most uplifting and emotionally resonant kinds of hooks in the world - that would be a purely subjective argument but whenever I listen to this ballad I really feel like sharing it. I even manage to appreciate the weird synthesizer backup of these hooks, although generally it's a bit cheesy to hear hi-tech synths in Seventies' soulful ballads.

Of course, Stone The Crows wouldn't really be stoning the crows if they were THAT consistent - and they HAD to fuck up the consistency of the record by including a multi-part ultra-long blues-rock epic from Leahy, the nine-minute 'Niagara' that goes nowhere and does nothing. Well, not true. The isolated parts of the song - some of them, at least - aren't nauseating or anything, even if the fast beginning of the song almost seems to be continuing the melody of 'Good Time Girl'. But they're kinda generic, and they're kinda underarranged, and they're kinda short. You could think of 'Niagara' as sort of a roots-rock analogy for Side 2 of Abbey Road, only where the melodies of Abbey Road were fully shaped and given the perfect arrangements, these here 'parts' all sound like raw snippets from some huge jam session. Some good guitar licks now and then, but nothing that really sticks out. No hooks either. No subtlety. Oh, at least the record closes with the 'Sunset Cowboy' ballad, whose melody is like a second-rate Blue Moves-era Elton John but whose message is at least perfectly clear ('Mother Nature's tears are falling down' - get it?).

Man, what a fussy album indeed. Well, at least they didn't try making any quick bucks on the death of their colleague, and if you ever thought that their debut album was mainly precious for its spontaneity and rawness, well this one's pretty raw too, nowhere near the pseudo-conceptuality of Ode To John Law. Oh, and just for the record, the title is NOT misspelt (not by me, at least). They claimed that the C "got lost somewhere along the way", or so I hear. Maybe poor Les Harvey took it with him to heaven? Or was it a clever hint at the band never getting their cash?


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