Graded on a Curve: Vanilla Fudge,
Near the Beginning

To soak up Vanilla Fudge’s talent as song-interpreters the best route is their eponymous ’67 debut. A further understanding of them as a singles act is most appropriately gleaned through the Rhino compilation Psychedelic Sundae. If an immersion into the multifaceted positives and negatives of these trailblazing late-‘60s hard rockers’ everyday reality is what one wants however, then one should look into the contents of Near the Beginning.

There’s no question Vanilla Fudge are an important band. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the group’s reading of a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune originally by The Supremes, is a vital evolutionary brick in the hard rock megastructure, and it stands as a one-song distillation of nearly everything that was good and potentially less than stellar about this hard-touring New York quartet. There are two versions of the Fudge’s recording, a just shy of three-minute single edit and the take found on their debut; that one’s over twice as long, and this duality is to an extent indicative of the group’s creative problems. It’s far from that simple though, and their somewhat brief and highly eventful initial existence provides a consistently interesting story, if one that’s only sporadically fruitful in musical terms.

Vanilla Fudge’s beginnings are in The Electric Pigeons, the soul cover unit featuring organist/lead vocalist Mark Stein and bassist Tim Bogert. They soon acquired guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Carmine Appice, and after hooking up with Shangri La’s producer Shadow Morton, they changed names and focused attentions on the studio.

The first effort turned out to be the best, but it was also a problematic record. Those soul roots were still showing; in fact, they never went away, flaring up rather flagrantly later in their tenure, but on Vanilla Fudge, it’s not a decisive detraction. It’s true that “People Get Ready” (and the first album is composed entirely of covers) is no great shakes, but “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is one of the better R&B lifts in ‘60s rock precisely because it displays a disinterest in mimicry (a real issue with NYC bands of the era) to instead hone a variation on a then new sound.

Slow it down, stretch it out and infuse it with a bruising drum-led heaviness. That was the Fudge’s contribution to rock’s development. They weren’t alone of course, and they played with many of their contemporaries in this scenario; live with Hendrix, Cream, and with Led Zeppelin as openers, plus the rhythm section landed on a radio jingle with Jeff Beck, a meeting that foreshadowed the early-‘70s supergroup Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Indeed heavy, but Vanilla Fudge sees the band blending the weightiness with a decidedly Rascals-like orientation; it’s that NY soul thing again. More troublingly, the stretching out occasionally crosses over into the realms of the meandering, a concern complicated by Stein’s prominent baroque-shaded organ. And while for the most part the focus on outside material serves them well here, there are a few hiccups, a small one with the Impressions’ cover and a much larger convulsion via a closing “Eleanor Rigby” that’s always struck these ears as a dud (the opening “Ticket to Ride” is far more successful).

Shockwaves from The Beatles were huge on these guys and their manager, as was the male half of Sonny and Cher apparently. Songs by the Brits and Mr. Bono figure on both Vanilla Fudge and The Beat Goes On, the first of their two ’68 discs, though it’s most fittingly described as Shadow Morton’s folly. Essentially an extended sound collage, it does include playing by the band, but the concept, basically a musical/history lesson in denoted phases that’s often bland, pompous and trite at once, is all Morton.

Bogert has been quoted as saying The Beat Goes On “killed the band.” Upon inspection of the facts, this seems ludicrous; the LP hit #17 on the album chart, proving that hordes of folks were stoned out of their gourds and/or tripping like mad in ’68, and the quickly released follow-up Renaissance, cut at the same time as The Beat Goes On, made the Top 20 as well.

Renaissance shifted to self-penned tunes, and not with prime results. Only two covers are included, “The Spell that Comes After” by Essra Mohawk (a little-known protégé of Frank Zappa) and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (with lyrics added from Mohawk’s “We Never Learn”). While substantially worthier than The Beat Goes On, it’s lesser than Vanilla Fudge, mainly because none of the members were particularly strong songwriters, at least at this point.

While falling much closer to the debut, Renaissance still shows the touch of Morton through a less obtrusive endeavor at the conceptual. Frankly, Vanilla Fudge’s best concept was established prior to meeting Morton. To varying degrees Cream, Zep, Beck, and Hendrix all mined blues for inspiration, but the Fudge’s pop ‘n’ soul inclination was fairly distinct, and when they clicked it was powerful. The sound that greatly impacted the subsequent organ-driven hard rock mayhem of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep is here amongst flashes of energy, but without the songs Renaissance is lacking.

Side one of Near the Beginning, the first of two LPs from ’69, is notably a self-produced affair. Having broken clean from Morton, the band’s positive adjustments are immediately felt, and when their discography is listened to in succession the fourth record radiates a sizeable atmosphere of liberation. It’s also the disc I’d pull out to display Vanilla Fudge’s numerous dimensions, warts and all.

Yes, Near the Beginning shoulders some hefty troubles, but it gets off to a rousing rock ‘n’ soul start with a take on Jr. Walker & the All-Stars’ “Shotgun.” Part of the Fudge’s appeal is how they could choose a song that’s popularity had become ubiquitous (i.e. overplayed) and give it a fresh spin, though as stated, these transfusions did have a tendency to sometimes fall flat and/or grow a little predictable.

“Shotgun” mostly avoids those dangers; while clearly another example of Rascally influence (don’t doubt it; a CD bonus track comes adorned with the title “Good Good Lovin’”), the Fudge’s version focuses far more attention upon injecting the source with heaviness than in simply attempting to replicate soul feeling in a rock context (the undoing of many ‘60s bands).

Stein’s vocals generally eschew over-emotive straining, his organ grinds more than it noodles and Martell is in the throes of wah-pedal frenzy. Bogert holds it down and gets a few licks in as Appice’s drumming travels through expressiveness and right to the borderline of being too busy; others will surely find him running roughshod with insensitivity and obnoxiousness, but that’s rock ‘n’ roll for ya’.

“Shotgun” is far from perfect; I could do without the vocal harmonies for starters, but it packs a punch. Less enjoyable is a cover of the Hazelwood/Sinatra doozy “Some Velvet Morning.” The full-tilt instrumental sections are welcome (Bogert’s distorted bass is a treat), but all of the charming weirdness of its foundation is missing, and next to Lee’s serrated tones and Nancy’s sultry pipes, Stein’s undeniably foofy delivery is considerably minor.

“Some Velvet Morning” segues directly into Appice’s original “Where is Happiness,” and the situation improves. Beginning in an experimental zone and swiftly building into a reasonably likeable (if unsubtle) hunk of heavy psych with harmony vox, the proceedings are perhaps dominated a bit too much in the mid-section by guitar soloing, but Appice’s boisterousness takes the reigns as the cut fades out to conclude side one.

The drumming instantly reignites on the flip, but sadly the 22-plus minutes of “Break Song” are an essay in frustration. Recorded live at the Shrine in Los Angeles, the track is an instrumental showcase brandishing lengthy solo spots for each member, and while fleeting moments of worth do appear as it unwinds (a flash of group power here, more of Bogert’s distorto-bass there), the balance primarily shows excessiveness as a trait not exclusive to Shadow Morton. Also, a recurring flare-up of rudimentary blues-rocking offers nothing except enlightenment into these cats’ smartness in resisting the style.

And yet this survey in disappointment illuminates the constant touring schedules that most certainly contributed to the band’s early demise. Overall, Near the Beginning is just a hair above average, though it’s really a tale of two sides. As mentioned, Vanilla Fudge managed another LP in ’69, but Rock & Roll’s upsurge of originals finds them finessing that soulful streak into increasingly formulaic grooving remindful of a second-rate Grand Funk Railroad. I’d say it’s for completists only.

Bogert and Appice became the rhythm-section for the hit-and-miss boogie-rock of Cactus before joining up with Beck in that curious supergroup turn. Stein formed a band called Boomerang and put out a self-titled record I’ve never seen much less heard, though I’m keen to. Martell reportedly kept performing until the inevitable ‘80s reunion happened.

Since then Vanilla Fudge have been on and off like a light switch in a plethora of different lineups, and the latest incarnation with Stein, Martell and Appice (Bogert retired a few years ago) have tour dates scheduled for this summer. It’s an utter cinch “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” will make the set list, but just maybe they’ll dust off that trusty “Shotgun.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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