Friday, May 9, 2014

Humble Pie – 1970

     Humble Pie was, in the early 70s, as big an act as Led Zeppelin at the time. Which is a kind of ironic statement since the Pie’s main frontman, Steve Marriott, was  an important influence on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant COMBINED in the mid-1960s. Yet Marriott abandoned his original group, The Small Faces, to form something new in the late 60s. Two albums were released in 1969, but the record label – Immediate Records  - was on the skids and ready to implode. The Pie changed management at this point and signed to A&M Records. The 1970 A&M debut, titled simply “Humble Pie”, has all the ingredients of an anonymous, low-key release. Can’t say it was the FIRST album. Can’t complain it was the “sophmore slump”. It was the first release for a new record company, but there were no hits on it. Nor even any attempts at creating a hit. Just a funky little record. Nothing fancy, yet. This is such a classic Steve Marriott move  -  just sign a big record deal with a new company and hand them a totally under-produced and hit-barren, in-joke laden, artistically non-commercial, cult-status-boosting plastic waffle from hell that could ever be conceived. God, it’s GREAT!

     Really , the first two albums had a lot more going for them. Unfortunately, they were released by Immediate Records – the domain of Rolling Stones ex-producer Andrew Loog Oldham who decided just as Humble Pie were putting out those records in the late-60s to DUMP his label therefore leaving the Pie, essentially, homeless. This was the reality which brought the band to the attention of A & M. Now, you would think that Marriott would want to impress his new bosses with a blockbuster debut album to ring in the new contract, but he does the opposite! He low-balls the first release in a near-taunting fashion!

     Marriott’s luck with the business end of the music industry, to that point, had been a real mixed bag of artistic and critical success coupled with bad managers, deals and exploitation. Humble Pie’s A & M debut was a total reflection of his serious misgivings and hard-won sense of awareness. If only the end result of all the hard work would actually pay off (it didn’t in the end, sadly - at least not for Marriott).

     Humble Pie started out as a group Steve Marriott was putting together for young Peter Frampton who was eager to get away from his teeny-bopper image (such as it was in England in the mid-60s) and into something more artistically valid. Marriott hand-picked a rhythm section for Frampton (Greg Ridley on bass and Jerry Shirley on drums), then promptly invited himself into the group (and leaving the Small Faces in the lurch)! Thus Humble Pie was born. Before this, of course, Marriott had already made his mark with the Small Faces. During his years with the Small Faces, Marriott proved he was a major talent – witness “Lazy Sunday” – in my opinion one of the most perfect single record releases ever!

     Yet the exploitation that group suffered under manager Don Arden was the kind of experience that left permanent scars for Marriott – experiences that would haunt him through every other manager he’d employ for the rest of his life.

     All of this leads up to the Humble Pie debut for A&M in 1970. The masterful thing about this record is how the flashes of brilliance sneak up on you, hit without warning and then recede as fast as they’d arrived. Mundane jams punctuated by glimmers of goosebump-inducing ensemble magic. It’s in those moments when the stars align and something special happens amidst the murky sonic jungle that reminds you – this is the work of a guy who was responsible for “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”. It’s like Marriott was purposely downplaying his talent – hiding it away behind something that sounded like a Grand Funk copycat band. The production is sparse, the material well-trodden, the playing competent. Then – just when you were thinking “pleasant little jam-band” a crash of pure Marriott dynamite blows the doors down and you’re thinking “where the hell did THAT come from?”. It’s such a SNEAKY album!
Let’s start with Side One, shall we?

     1. Live with me. Alright, this could be anybody. Organ intro. Another one of those bluesy, slow album-openers. A pretty long instrumental intro – quite a few choruses before the Marriott vocal commences.  As the song builds….the volume rises….the drama intensifies and simmers back down, but not after a little peek into the potential of the group harmonies……a little meandering organ and guitar interplay……then – Greg Ridley offers a lead vocal on the next verse, a little ducked in the mix, but a really strong vocal delivery! Nice contrast to Marriott’s over-the-top delivery. Another group vocal chorus then simmering back down to a proper organ solo……again, nothin’ fancy – just some loose jamming…….THEN….Frampton takes a lead vocal on the next verse. Not as confident as the other two, but a nice contrast in the mix …….another build with Marriott’s vocal leading the charge into a beautiful group vocal and a QUICKLY punctuated end! DONE! Well, that’s after almost 8 minutes – who puts an 8 minute song on the front of a debut album for a new label???

     2. Only a Roach. Excuse me? A jokey faux-country waltz number sung in a whispery voice by drummer Jerry Shirley with the rest of the group sounding five sheets to the wind in the chorus? – and only on the second song of the record?? Dear LORD what were they thinking?

     3. One-Eyed Trouser Snake Rhumba. Yep – that’s the title on the record label! But this ain’t no rhumba. It’s chunky, mid-tempo blues and rockin’ boogie that sounds like a pretty pedestrian jam punctuated by more of the triple-lead-vocal threat which is the only other thing to distinguish an otherwise generic-sounding, and oddly kinda BRIEF track! The song doesn’t live up to the awesome promise of the title, unfortunately. What this track does accomplish, however, is to provide for the exact group sound / identity that Humble Pie would be known for in the band’s “classic phase”. It’s like Marriott finally took the reins and said, “Alright, punters! THIS is what Humble Pie is all about!” A cohesive sound, though debuted on a semi-throwaway track.

     4. Earth and Water Song. This could be considered the start of where Peter Frampton’s solo career would take him. An acoustic ballad. Slow-tempo number with an emotional vocal delivery from Frampton – some kind of deal comparing a relationship to the elements – “I am the Earth and She is my Water……” – typical hippie bullshit lyrics trotted out over a totally forgettable attempt at melody. Well, okay – a little diversity in the instrumentation, but Frampton’s offerings in this style were WAY BETTER on the previous two albums. This sounds so tentative in comparison. Almost demo-like. What gives? Not exactly Frampton’s shining moment, but good for what it brings to the album generally.

     So that’s it for side one…..not bad, but this isn’t some local bar band……….lets see where side two leads………
    Side Two:

     5. I’m Ready. The Muddy Waters classic re-arranged Pie-style. A real grungy, staggering-down-the-street-half-drunk-and-lookin’-to-cause-trouble kind of a groove. The three lead vocalists switch off again with Frampton delivering what must be his gutsiest and gruff-est vocal ever. It’s almost impossible to recognize it’s HIM! And, this track also – in my opinion – provides the TEMPLATE for what early KISS sounds like. Right down to Greg Ridley’s vocal delivery which sounds exactly like what Gene Simmons would later sound like on every Kiss record known to humanity. Even the wind-up of the song with the way the whole band hits those accents – good LORD this is where KISS got their whole sound! Fascinating! Simmons and company would never admit this, but I’ll betcha they copied this sucker down to the letter! Have a listen and tell me I’m wrong……..

     6. Theme from Skint – See You Later Liquidator. Alright – what’s with THIS song title, you ask? Well, folks we have come to the MEAT of the program tonight, in my opinion. This is yet another chapter in the fascinating series of Steve Marriott rock-n-roll Economics sermons. Delivered with a sneering, sarcastic, weary tone. Acoustic guitar, pedal steel…..3 AM, frustrated and pissed-off vibe! Yet – this is where the classic Steve Marriott brilliance finally streaks naked across the sonic football field and you can’t help but cheer!! It comes right at the end after railing at some un-named manager over financial woes…….I won’t spoil the punch-line, but it arrives complete with appropriate sound effects and I’m LAUGHING my butt off!!! Sick, twisted Marriott humor at its finest!

     7. Red Light Mama Red Hot.  Marriott would revisit these same lyrics on the next album, with a new and more whimsical musical backing. In this form, it’s another muscle-bound, mid-tempo rockin’ number. Some rude and lascivious lyrics, a little blues harmonica, some tasty guitar solos and, yes…COWBELL! But it’s just a jam on an unfinished song, as fun as it is.

     8. Sucking on the Sweet Vine. Now it’s Greg Ridley’s turn at an acoustic, ballad-y number. For my money this trumps Frampton’s offering at the end of side one. I personally think Greg Ridley’s voice, not to mention bass-playing, is one of the more over-looked talents in rock and roll history. Damn fine song!! Beautifully constructed and executed. I would have loved it if Ridley had done a solo album. Him and Bob Mosley (bass player from Moby Grape) – my two favorite rock bass players bar NONE. Great players – great singers – damn fine songwriters. Totally under-appreciated. For my tastes, this is a perfect album-closer. In fact, it rates about the most COMMERCIAL sounding thing on the whole darned record.

     Now, all that’s left to do is add two obscure-looking illustrations to the front and back covers, don’t bother listing the song titles on the outer sleeve and……what you have is a purposely down-played major label debut from a bunch of guys who just decided to pretend they weren’t as talented as they really ARE, but showed a few glimpses in the process anyway just to mess with the audience’s collective minds. Oh, and they invented the KISS sound while they were at it. Look, I’m not kidding. Ace Frehley has gone down on record stating that they hung out with Humble Pie backstage at the Fillmore East when the recording of “Rockin the Fillmore” was in progress. It was a conscious artistic decision on the part of Gene Simmons and company to cop the early Humble Pie sound and exploit it for all it was worth behind some kooky makeup getups.

     After the 1970 release, Humble Pie would set themselves to touring America as if their lives depended on it. For my money, their next studio release – “Rock On” – is one of two standout classic LPs the group would release (the other being the Frampton-free “Smokin”). Of course the live LP “Rockin the Fillmore” is a classic in its own right. In some ways, the Fillmore album somehow transcends Humble Pie as a group – it is a quintessential snapshot of what a hard rockin’ band of the early 70s should sound like in concert. It wasn’t the first double live album in rock history, yet it did create a ripple effect, a unique life of its own: an evergreen catalog item that kept selling long after any legitimate group calling itself “Humble Pie” ceased to exist. “Rockin’ the Fillmore” also recently was given the expanded 4-CD box set deluxe release (though I haven’t ponied up the cash for that yet).

     None of this was evident from those who purchased the self-titled LP in 1970. The future of the group had yet to be written. The sad reality is that Humble Pie became the victim of its ambitions. The live shows were universally lauded by concert-goers who still speak in tongues about witnessing the Live Pie. However, the hits dried up – perhaps a result of badly recorded albums and over-worked musicians. Marriott never quite regained hold of the high ground he toiled so hard to reach in the early 70s. In some ways, he became the first genuine legend and catalyst of the 60s / 70s rock era to turn his back on courting the rock and roll dragon to see who would emerge victorious from the fray. By the mid-80s, Marriott had seen his bandmate Frampton achieve insane fame in the late 70s, only to sputter out by the early 80s himself! What the frig was it all worth if you’re gonna be swept under the rug after a few years of crazy fame? Better to keep the business small and comfortable and under your own control. Even a reunion attempt between Marriott and Frampton in the early 90s left Marriott a little ambivalent about trying to make a go for the “big time” again. He’d been around the block too many times by that point. While he was still considering his possible future with Frampton again, Marriott fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and that was pretty much it. A terrible way to go for such a brilliant talent. Those in the know realize how crazy talented Steve Marriott was. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether he would have gained more widespread recognition had he lived. A part of me is convinced he wouldn’t have given much of a damn so long as he was knocking out the next audience in the next town down the line in his own inimitable fashion.

     After Marriott’s death, there was a brief reunion of Humble Pie alumni sans Frampton. Ridley, Shirley, Clempson and wonderful later-era member Bob Tench recorded an album in the late 90s as Humble Pie that was worthy of the name and legacy of the group. It wasn’t their fault that Marriott wasn’t there. He would have been either proud or envious of their efforts. The album – “Back on Track” – is worth seeking out since it was the last time the great Greg Ridley graced a record. Not long after the album’s release, Ridely would pass on and pretty much scupper any legitimate efforts to revive the Humble Pie name in any major way again.

     I maintain to this day, if current audiences were confronted with a band like Humble Pie at their peak in the early 70s, they would faint dead away from the shock of being exposed to such passionate, high quality and SOULFUL rock and roll – they wouldn’t know what was hitting them. The Pie carved out their own slice of history. Their music holds up.
When was the last time you heard a band give a performance like that? And in 1970, nobody would have been the wiser.

No comments:

Post a Comment