Graded on a Curve: Mountain, Climbing!

Remembering Leslie West, born on this day in 1945. Ed.

Leslie West is a heavy guy. He weighs like 1,000 lbs and plays heavy music and called his band Mountain because mountains are very heavy, and his song “Mississippi Queen” is so heavy it has to be carried from gig to gig in a specially made truck of the sort the U.S. Army uses to transport intercontinental ballistic missiles. And forget about vinyl. Mountain was so heavy they released their 1970 debut on concrete. It weighed 42 pounds and crushed a whole lot of record players.

Lots of folks dismissed Mountain (West on guitar and vocals, Felix Pappalardi on bass and vocals, Corky Laing on drums, and Steve Knight on keyboards) as Long Island’s answer to Cream, and on songs like “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” “For Yasgur’s Farm,” “The Laird,” and “Boys in the Band” the resemblance is striking. But on Climbing! Mountain escapes their Cream fetish to produce songs as humongous as the whale you keep expecting to show up in “Nantucket Sleighride,” except he never does.

Given Mountain’s reputation as the heaviest beast to ever slouch out of Long Island, Climbing! is far more diverse than you’d expect. Sure, you get some nifty Godzilla stomp along the lines of “Mississippi Queen.” But the band also flirts with acid-prog of the sort that won’t wreak havoc on your tweeters, and tosses in a couple of genre-benders that defy all known ethnomusicological definition. In short, Mountain was no one-trick mastodon.

The band’s division of vocal duties further lent diversity to Mountain’s sound. West’s rhino snort contrasts nicely with Pappalardi’s Jack Bruce, and the duo delegates lead vocal chores accordingly–West sings the speaker-busters, Pappalardi the more Cream-influenced tracks.

Let’s turn first to the heavy ones. The cowbell-happy “Mississippi Queen” is “Mississippi Queen,” and sounds like a division of Panzer tanks rolling into your living room. I like to think Leslie’s singing about a drag queen, but everybody knows Lou Reed was the only Long Island boy with the gonads to go “Lola.”

“Never in My Life” has this staggeringly titanic riff over which West bellows like a pirate stuck in 47th place in the drive-thru lane at your local Taco Bell, and bears a more than passing resemblance to “Mississippi Queen.” As for the hard-rocking “Sittin’ on a Rainbow,” it features yet more cowbell and weighs a good half-ton, but has more boogie-choogle in it than the aforementioned tunes.

The album’s other songs put melody over crunch, and prove that Mountain was more than just a musical battering ram–or Cream Part II. And the reason is Knight’s organ, which lends an almost prog-rock feel to the Cream-flavored “Theme for an Imaginary Western” (which was actually co-written by Jack Bruce!) and “For Yasgur’s Farm.” It also adds color to the very Creamy “Silver Paper,’ on which West cuts loose on axe and the band goes all Age of Aquarius on you (sample line: “Open your heart, and let the sunshine in”).

The rest of the songs on the record aren’t as noteworthy. The melody of the slow-moving “Boys in the Band” is second-rate Procol Harum, the vocals subpar Steppenwolf. The instrumental “To My Friend” skips from raga rock to flamenco in a heartbeat and is best be avoided. “The Laird”–which also has more than a little Cream in its DNA–also begins life as a raga rocker before inexplicably morphing into a cheesy folk rock ditty over which Pappalardi warbles on and on and on. For wimps only.

Robert Christgau of The Village Voice dismissed Mountain as “the original Cremora,” but that’s hardly being fair. There’s no denying West and the boys shamelessly ripped off Cream, but on songs like “Mississippi Queen” and “Never in My Life” they helped invent heavy metal. What did Eric Clapton go on to invent? “Tears in Heaven,” that’s what. Now if I could just lift Climbing! off of my turntable…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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