Ye olde days of rock
- Scott R. Garceau () - September 17, 2008 - 12:00am

Gather round, ye young ones, and hear my tales of men who fought and played long ago, upon stages beswirled in smoke, awash in buckets of dry ice, and shafted through with laser beams of many colors… Yes, hark back to the days when bands of men — we shall call them “rock bands” — stomped across union-constructed wooden platforms, and drummers — men who beat dead animal skins for their wages — rose majestic among lasers and smoke, upon mechanically-engineered “risers,” overlooking crowds of quavering hands, each bearing a Bic lighter.

Yes, in those far-gone days, stages were not for non-rock practitioners — those vagabonds and charlatans who would wear simple sweaters of wool and Gap-vendored T-shirts, and stare down at their chosen instruments (or their footwear) in attitudes of defeat or sullen disregard. No, these men of “rock” strutted upon the stage like players of old, wearing tights or at least very tight pants, often interacting with props meant to represent ancient times. They lifted their chins up high to the klieg lights, and raised their index and pinky fingers up to the air, as though to conjure the gods. For they were not but mere men; they were men who rocked.

Yes, and they had names… ah, names that were recorded by the ancients, and which strike terror in the hearts of the fearful, yet may still raise a grin of recognition among the faithful.

Names like Kansas. Jethro Tull. Blue Öyster Cult.

Their names would ofttimes morph and mutate, at once bearing the nomenclature of “Jefferson Airplane,” then appearing as “Jefferson Starship” and, in later times, simply “Starship.”

It was as Jefferson Starship that I witnessed this band, in a venue usually reserved for planetarium shows and school science trips. Minus the stellar Grace Slick and plaintive Marty Balin, they still retained the guitar prowess of Paul Kantner and newcomer Craig Chaquico. One Aynsley Dunbar did also impress on drums. But it was in ‘70s rockers like Jane and Freedom at Point Zero that they did bear resemblance to the early Airplane days. Not in the mullets, nor the cocksure solos, nor the crude light show, which admittedly did create waves of interest.

The Fitchburg Planetarium was, indeed, a haven for “rock bands” in those days, including the entourage that Alice Cooper assembled for his “Special Forces” tour. At 20 dollars per ticket, it was a night of many amusements. This was, alas, no longer the “classic” Alice Cooper lineup of Buxton, Bruce, Dunaway and Smith, but a more makeup-heavy Alice, strutting the stage and occasionally tearing up a baby doll for old time’s sake and tossing it to the crowd. The singer, Alice, seemed so naturally appended to his microphone — which had a lengthy power chord, this being before the days of wireless amps and strange bindi-like dots appearing on performers’ foreheads — that he did seem, even to this young observer, much more like a carnival barker or auctioneer trying to “sell” his act to the crowd than a genuine “rocker.” He also had a much-muscled guitar player who was dressed in the fashion of John Rambo, holding an instrument that resembled a machine gun, though this did not much improve his soloing.

There was no way to stroll through the ‘70s without encountering those wandering minstrels of the gallery, Jethro Tull, which I confess to seeing not once, but twice. (The second being a mistake almost identical in nature to the first.) Jethro Tull could flummox a crowd with lengthy flute solos (during which Ian Anderson’s knee and arm would simultaneously jerk up, as though threatening to prance the stage), lengthy guitar solos (by one Martin Barre) and various bits of business involving props not seen again until This is Spinal Tap. To this day, when I hear Jethro Tull, I am taken back to the “Stonehenge” segment of Tap, during which dwarves roam the stage to the sound of flutes, in danger of “trodding” on the scale models. Aye, it is truly a segment conceived with Jethro Tull in mind! Singer Anderson was firmly in the camp of performers who believed rock concerts should resemble vaudeville, or at least a medieval jester’s show, thus the moment during a guitar solo when a gorilla-suited man took the stage — for no reason! Such absurdity! We were much flummoxed!

Anderson’s band was “progressive,” meaning to these well-versed ears “boring” — a fact evidenced by the lumbering transitions between stitched-together song segments, which, in their fancy, took many of us back to the Shire. In fact, I recall catching many zzz’s during the second set of the Tull concert, brought on, perhaps, by earlier sharing of intoxicants. The second Tull show occurred because someone gave me a free ticket and I couldn’t refuse. I also fell asleep.

Few names conjure up this era of anon quite like Kansas, who did also traffic in a circuslike “arena rock” atmosphere. Yet Kansas were wiser, allowing their lengthy compositions ample breathing space, and did feature some fine violin witchery by Robby Steinhardt, as well as throaty warbling by singer Steve Walsh. Yes, there were awkward moments during the drum solo to My Soul Cries Out For You ­ — during which a dummy was inexplicably dropped from the rafters onto the stage — but all in all, Kansas were better than their name, touring an album (“Monolith”) that was less stellar than their masterwork “Point of No Return,” yet managed to incorporate Native American lyrics and concerns without going the “Ooga-chucka, Ooga-chucka” novelty song route.

But most bands, by the late ‘70s, eschewed the Tolkien whimsy in favor of “hard rock,” preferring to pummel audiences, or at least create the atmosphere of “heaviosity” whenever possible. I did manage to sight upon the god’s hammer himself, Sir Jimmy Page, in a less-than-mercurial night in Atlanta, playing with a band known as The Firm (we have dovetailed into the corporate ‘80s, you will note). With former Bad Company man Paul Rodgers settling, vocally, for a no-fly zone far below the heights of Mr. Robert Plant, The Firm mainly existed to give Mr. Page — who still seemed to be in the grip of some kind of pickled fermentation at this point in his career — an opportunity to wield his god’s hammer in numerous solos. One I recall — Mr. Page spinning and plying his digits to the heavens as strobe lights captured his every move — failed to move me, and, even upon reflection, would not merit inclusion on the “Out-takes” section of the Song Remains the Same concert DVD.

Aye, but it was hard to flummox and pummel an audience back then, as even the famous cretins Black Sabbath proved, minus Ozzy but plus Dio, during their “Heaven and Hell” tour at Boston Garden. The experience, for this 13-year-old, was marked by a few things: 1) Dio’s voice being much higher than Ozzy’s, lending songs like Iron Man an unintentional comic tone; 2) missing a final commuter train back to our outlands, thus necessitating a night spent sleeping in a Boston bus station, during which I met more than one crazy person; and 3) that opening act Blue Öyster Cult actually played better and seemed to have more fun onstage than the Sabs, especially during the Godzilla/Born To Be Wild encores. This despite having a silly umlaut in their name that served no pronunciation purpose whatsoever. It just goes to show that good rock doth not stand overly much on ceremony.

Now, return ye hence to your Limp Bizkit and Korn videos. I needeth my sleep.

ALICE COOPER BAD COMPANY BLACK SABBATH JEFFERSON STARSHIP JETHRO TULL MDASH MR. PAGE ROCK
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