Graded on a Curve:
Montrose, Montrose

Nowadays the band Montrose is chiefly remembered as the rock boarding school one Sammy (“I can’t drive 55/With my thumbs stuck in my eyes”) Hagar attended before graduating to a disappointing, if not semi-disastrous, tenure as front man of the post-David Lee Roth Van Halen. How unfair. At their best, namely on their debut 1973 self-titled debut, Montrose rocked balls, kicked ass and took names, and established themselves as perhaps America’s best response to Led Zeppelin. As for Montrose itself, some consider it America’s first true heavy metal LP. Me, I’d go with Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s beside the point.

Montrose came out of California, where guitarist Ronnie Montrose—who played sessions for Van Morrison (amongst others) and did a stint in The Edgar Winter Group—decided to put his own band together. The finished product included Sammy Hagar on vocals, Bill Church on bass, and Denny Carmassi on drums. Ted Templeman, who played an instrumental role in getting the band signed to Warner Brothers, produced the LP. Unfortunately this turned out to be a mixed blessing as Warners, which made it a practice to push only one LP from each genre at a time, already had the Doobie Brothers (!!!) in the rock slot and Deep Purple in the hard rock slot. Without publicity push from Warners, Montrose got left out in the cold, and only managed to reach the 133 spot on the U.S. Billboard charts.

But you can’t keep a good album down, not forever anyway, and the Montrose LP has received increasing attention over the following years, thanks to its strong songwriting, Montrose’s great guitar work, and Hagar’s hard-hitting vocals. I’ve always found it exceptionally easy to poke fun at Hagar, but on Montrose he proves the joke is on me, by doing things with his vocal chords that are illegal in Mormon Utah. (No, I have no idea what that means either.) In any event, Montrose has received its just desserts, which is more than you can say about Warners’ beloved Doobie Brothers, who deserve to be tied to a large stone and dropped into some deep and very black water.

Montrose is a blowout from beginning to end, and the best part about it is that not only do its songs have hard rock punch, they’re also catchy as Hell. Take “Rock the Nation,” with its heavily distorted guitar riff—Montrose ran his guitar through a Big Muff effect box—and great drumming, over which Hagar says he’s gonna shake it, gonna break it in fact, because its “Been a long education/ But my homework is done/I’m gonna rock the nation/Just-a wanna have fun, yeah!” What teenager couldn’t relate to that? Meanwhile, the great “Bad Motor Scooter” opens with Montrose imitating a revving chopper on his axe, and then hits you like a snort of bad crank with the amazing things he does on his Big-Muffed guitar—his long solo is to die for—while Hagar encourages his girl to get on her bad motor scooter and ride. “Bad Motor Scooter” is a high-octane balls-to-the wall blast of sonic cool, and definitely proves that Montrose can’t drive 55. Why this song isn’t played on every backwards-looking FM radio station in the country—they could certainly fit it in between Fleetwood Mac and fucking Foreigner—is beyond me.

The band’s winning streak continues with the brilliant and tres Zep “Space Station No. 5.” Not only does Montrose play a very hair-raising and in-your-face Jimmy Page riff throughout, I swear you can even hear a hint of Robert Plant in Hagar’s vocals. But the important thing is that the song has mucho propulsion, although it’s stopped momentarily by a spacy meditative section during which Hagar sings slowly to the lunar accompaniment of Montrose’s guitar. But the song kicks back into ear-destroying overdrive, and Montrose plays one very cool solo as the song speeds up before ending in a caterwaul of effects just like the ones that started the song. So now we know what space sounds like! “I Don’t Want It” opens with a big boogie riff on guitar and Hagar singing, “I gave love a chance and it shit back in my face/And I just quit my job makin’ toothpicks out of logs.” Are those some great lyrics or what? Hagar’s thesis is that things are bad and getting worse, and his attitude (as expressed in a big echoing chorus) is, “I don’t want it, not today, no no/I don’t need it, so take it away, yeah!” Meanwhile Montrose plays riffs like a Norse god hurls thunderbolts, and you’re left with the distinct impression he could do it all day long, no sweat. As for Montrose’s solo it’s short and sweet, and the rhythm section plays kick the can with the tempo, keeping it moving in synch with Hagar’s generally negative diagnosis of the times.

Montrose’s cover of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is probably my least favorite song on the LP because, well, having heard some 16,000 covers of it over the years, I’m a bit tired of it. Neither does the band do anything particularly revolutionary with it. They just play it hard and fast, with Montrose playing a throbbing backing guitar as well as a great solo over the middle section, while Hagar is up to the task of announcing the good news. Best of all, they keep it slinky, which is something lots of other metal bands wouldn’t have thought of or been able to do. The mid-tempo “Rock Candy” is great too, opening as it does with some really heavy drum pummel followed by lots of very hard-ass power chords by Montrose. Meanwhile, Hagar sings, “You’re rock candy, baby/Hard, sweet and sticky,” which reminds me of Cows’ “Sticky and Sweet,” which in turn makes me think of Cows’ “I Miss Her Beer,” which is the worst part of a defunct relationship, the loss of beer. But I digress. Suffice it to say that Montrose produces a ponderous din on the guitar, one that will make you think one of those big-legged, tiny-handed dinosaurs is in your living room, while Hagar proves he can handle the heavy Zepp-like numbers just as well as he can the faster, punchier tunes.

“One Thing on My Mind” isn’t one of my faves either—despite its playful opening guitar riff—mainly because it doesn’t exactly skedaddle along and features a clunky melody that fails to capture my imagination. Hagar has one thing on his mind and it isn’t his taxes, while Montrose makes a noise more akin to Foghat than to Montrose’s earlier tracks. Even his guitar solo fails to lift me to a higher plane, the way the album’s first four tracks do. Still, it grows on you, despite its flaws, as does follow-up and LP closer “Make It Last,” which opens with some big riffage and Hagar remembering some advice his old man gave him when he was 17. The guitar riffs are huge and the drums thump thump thump like a very large grizzly bear across your brainpan, while Hagar belts it out, his general message being that you should live your life from day to day. Meanwhile Montrose plays a titanic solo as the song heads towards its close and picks up speed, the band singing, “Keep on rollin’/Right on down/Make it last/As long as you can.”

Montrose is a great album, even if its second side doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. Throw in some more fuzz and “Rock the Nation” could almost be a Stooges song, which tells me Ronnie Montrose had his ear to the ground and knew what was going down. But some bands are at the right place at the right time and Montrose, great as they were, wasn’t one of them. On subsequent LPs Montrose tinkered significantly with the band’s sound, going from hard rock to something softer and, I suspect he hoped, more commercial. Listening to “Underground” from 1974’s Paper Money one can hear how he sanded off the debut album’s jagged metallic edges in search of something more melodic and less in your face. Perhaps he wanted to replace the Doobie Brothers as Warner’s “rock band,” who knows. In any event it didn’t succeed and Hagar split in 1975, while Montrose labored away, seeking that perfect sound in Montrose, on his solo albums, and in the band Gamma until 2012, when he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Which is a tragedy, but that’s life, and at least he lives on in Montrose’s debut album, which was killer when it came out and still sounds just as killer today. I’ll bet you one bad motor scooter you can’t listen to this baby and still drive 55, because it’s a Porsche of an album and you can’t drive a Porsche at the speed limit, as the solo Sammy Hagar, whom I don’t intend to mock from this day forward, informed us.


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