Colin H on Atomic Rooster
The image above is the inner gatefold of Rooster’s third and best album, ‘In Hearing Of…’, released in 1971. It was their only LP to feature singer Pete French. In the (very accurate) caricature are Vince Crane (organ), Johnn Cann (guitar), Paul Hammond (drums) and Pete French. But before the album came out, that would all change.
I wrote the text below as a note to an expanded CD reissue of the album in 2004. Now that Pete and guitarist Steve Bolton (who joined to tour the album and would record on the next one) have revived Rooster with Jean Crane’s blessing, I thought it might be of interest. If Pete get’s back to me, I’ll print a new interview on all things Rooster in 2016.
In Hearing Of… Atomic Rooster
Having set out their progressive rock stall in 1970 with an ambitious first album – doomy lyrics and pastoral vibes with virtuoso workouts from a singular trio of bass/flute, drums and keyboards – and having moved onwards and upwards in first half of 1971 with two British hit singles and the mercilessly focused hard rock of Death Walks Behind You, Atomic Rooster were in a position to make the leap from being a hard-working clubs and colleges act to a first-division British rock export, alongside the likes of Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Deep Purple and the rest. In spite of making the leanest, meanest, best and best-selling album of their brief, five-album existence – the halfway high point, in retrospect, on an uncannily symmetrical rise and fall graph – the Rooster would only taste the hors d’ oeuvres of a truly international career before sliding under the table, leaving their visionary, Vincent Crane, to re-group for the umpteenth time and wonder where it all went wrong.
While the non-album single ‘Devil’s Answer’, written by John Cann, did the business as a follow-up to Crane’s breakthrough UK chart hit ‘Tomorrow Night’ it was, however, its B-side which demonstrated most clearly where Crane was seeing the group (and it was, without doubt, his group) going. A fabulously languorous groove-based instrumental with clipped, funky horn-section stabs, ‘The Rock’ reflected several comments Crane had been making in print of late: ‘You know, you really can learn a lot from James Brown,’ he’d mused on one occasion; on another he stated emphatically that the group was ‘moving towards structural music, with a hypnotic feel over a steady beat.’ Clearly, this was news to the rest of the band.
‘Devil’s Answer’ entered the UK chart on July 10 1971, eventually reaching No.4. Seemingly around this very time Rooster’s line-up had been bolstered by the addition of vocalist Pete French.
A hungry young rocker from Battersea, French had made his first commercial recordings at the height of the ‘British blues boom’ as vocalist with the Brunning Sunflower Blues Band, on their 1968 Saga album Bullen Street Blues – on which he had also co-written half the tracks. Joining another London-based blues-rock outfit, the only semi-professional Black Cat Bones, he fronted their 1969 album Barbed Wire Sandwich, for Decca subsidiary Nova. Pete’s cousin and writing partner Mick Halls was also drafted into Black Cat Bones, as guitarist, and by 1970, with gigs in Europe under their belt, the pair were calling the shots – which meant a name change (to Leafhound) and a move towards a Led Zeppelin-esque style of hard rock, a style which suited Pete’s voice down to the ground.
Leafhound’s sole album, the cult classic Growers Of Mushroom, would end up receiving its belated UK release on Decca – ironically, a few weeks after Pete’s first (and last) album with Atomic Rooster. The delay in their album’s release – with Leafhound in the frustrating position of touring Scandinavia and Germany and going down a storm, but with nothing to sell, to build on for next time – had effectively sapped the will from the band and it had dissolved by the time Pete was brought into Rooster.
The backing tracks for what would become the band’s third album, In Hearing Of, were presumably completed during June and early July, for within days of ‘Devil’s Answer’ entering the charts Crane had asked Cann to leave. More or less, apparently, on the very day Pete French was invited to join:
‘It was a very strange set-up,’ says Pete. ‘I got a phone call from Robert Masters, the manager, because Vincent had heard Leafhound and liked the vocals – would I care to come down the studio and do some tracks…? So I went down the studio – Trident, round the back of the old Marquee Club – and met the boys, Paul Hammond and John Cann, and no sooner had I seen them than they disappeared and I was left with some headphones yelling over the tracks!
‘It was a most bizarre situation to walk into because all the tracks had been laid down and I realised that Vincent was taking out John Cann’s vocals and rubbing out a lot of the guitar. It was over-busy though, a lot of overkill. I can see now why Vincent wanted to curtail it a bit. It’s hard for me to say, because I came along after the events, but it does seem apparent that there was a definite contest of wills over keyboard and guitar. It got messy. I think John wanted to do millions of guitar parts and Vincent was saying, ‘Hang on a minute…’ It was, he felt, too much guitar and he wanted a ‘proper singer’. John wasn’t really a singer – like a lot of guitarists he can get by, but Vincent’s interpretation was that he wanted someone who could ‘project’. We got talking later on, as soon as I got taken under the wing, if you like, when he’d heard the vocals I was doing, and Vince said, ‘Right, well, listen, John’s going, Paul’s going ‘cos I’m sacking John…’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t believe it…’
‘So there I was looking at Vince and he’s going, ‘Well, look Pete, like the vocals, you got the job, blah blah blah…’ And suddenly there’s no John – and I kinda like John’s guitar, the madness of it. I actually went to see them play in Richmond about two years previous and upon leaving it I was attacked by a gang of thugs and put in hospital for six months – fractured skull, broken nose, broken collar bone, the lot. That was my introduction to Atomic Rooster!
‘But I hit it off with Vince – a very professional musician. He made me feel a bit inadequate, to be perfectly honest – this cheeky cockney singer, me, and this very articulate keyboard player. I was trying to get on, as you do when you’re younger, and of course I didn’t even know about the American tour and what he had planned for the future. Rooster was big in England but they hadn’t had any world tours…’
Cann accepted Crane’s marching orders, taking Paul Hammond with him, and the pair subsequently regrouped as Hard Stuff, a name almost retaliatory in the light of Crane’s soul/funk preoccupation. ‘I knew there was a danger that if I asked John to leave the band Paul would go with him because of their friendship,’ Crane later recalled. ‘I thought it was necessary to take the risk because if John stayed I couldn’t do what I wanted with the group and it would just have been a waste of time… I would never get rid of anybody for personal reasons. It’s the music that was wrong and that’s why John had to go.’
There were expressions of bad feeling from John at the time, but whatever his limitations as a musician one has to question Crane’s timing: a Cann-fronted, Cann-written hit single was currently rising up the charts, a new album featuring his playing would be released in August and having just secured a US deal with Elektra the group were on the verge of their first American tour. Not only that, but because of previous line-up changes Cann had already overdubbed his guitar and (replacing Nick Graham on ‘Friday The 13th’) his voice on three tracks from the first album for its belated US release, while the imminent tour would be specifically to promote the just-released-there second album, Death Walks Behind You. There were only so many albums and line-up anomalies a nation could be expected to catch up on in one go. The non-album single ‘Devil’s Answer’ was also scheduled for American release to coincide with the tour. In the event, Pete French would be invited, mid-tour, to overdub his voice on the track for the US market. (‘Tomorrow Night’, sung by Crane, would also get a US release and while neither single caught on, the Death Walks album did scrape into the US Top 100 at No.90 – a pretty reasonable feat for a second division British rock band.)
The American tour – a coast-to-coast affair scheduled to last up to mid-October – began early in August 1971. Only two or three weeks earlier Crane had recruited Steve Bolton, a 22 year old guitarist from Manchester (whose London-based group Wide Open had just split in a manner akin to their name) and, for the second time, drummer Ric Parnell, who had played with Rooster for a couple of months in between Carl Palmer and Paul Hammond, in the summer of 1970. At that stage, Vincent had felt that Ric had the potential to become a great drummer within a few months – but that he, Vincent, couldn’t wait that long. With perfect timing, Ric – who went on to a certain level of immortality as the exploding drummer in spoof rockumentary Spinal Tap – was now back. The personnel to move from hard rock towards a kind of simmering hybrid prog/funk were at last in place.
‘I loved Ric,’ says Pete, ‘he’s a diamond, a great guy, laid-back, perpetually on something…! He played in a certain style, good timing, really laid-back snare. Other drummers would play very on-the-beat but he’d have it just a little bit held bit and it was really good.’
Pete wasn’t so sure about the new guitarist: ‘I didn’t rate him as a guitarist, after John, to be honest. He was perfectly adequate – good but not manic [like John]. But then again Vincent had decided that was what he wanted, and this was his big shot at making it big time [in America].’
Debuting at the Van Dike Club in Plymouth, the new line-up received a panning for it in Sounds – a review to which Vincent sought, and received, a right to reply with the magazine a few weeks later: ‘I felt that, considering it was the first gig the new band had done,’ he said, ‘and that we’d only had a week’s rehearsal, it was a pretty good gig. The audience seemed to like it a lot – it didn’t seem to upset them at all. It was virtually a new group – that was the most important thing as far as I was concerned.’ It always was.
While Rooster were never likely to be darlings of the music press back home, Crane saw the US tour as their big chance: ‘Several people have said it’s a bad time for us to leave England just when the record is doing so well,’ he told Julie Webb at the NME, by phone from St Louis, ‘but I’ve waited for two years for this tour and it wasn’t going to be put off… And this time, as far as I know, there’s no chance of the group splitting!’ Alas, if anyone should have known not to tempt fate with such talk, it was Vince.
Meanwhile, housed in a wonderfully quirky Roger Dean sleeve design – replacing the monochrome message of Death Walks Behind You with colour and wit, and putting in caricature form four people who had barely ever been in a room together for a photo to be taken – In Hearing Of reached No.18 in the UK. It was to be Atomic Rooster’s best UK chart placing. Considering that the group were abroad for much of its lifespan, that its British reviews were strangely unsympathetic (‘dreadfully under-rehearsed and soulless,’ said the MM), this was very creditable.
Arguably Rooster’s most consistent album, it featured – most curiously, given that he wasn’t actually in the band at this stage – four co-writes between Vince and Ric Parnell. Musically, it was an exquisite, flab-free blend of Crane’s inimitable piano motifs and soulful grooves with Cann’s muscular riffing, Hammond’s perhaps surprisingly funky drumming and French’s magnificent, quintessentially English rock voice – a blend that would remain sadly unrepeated on record and underexposed in concert. Perhaps if there had been a UK single from the album – an edited ‘Breakthrough’ or ‘Break The Ice’, perhaps – and if the band had been available for serious UK promotion of their work, the Rooster story may well have been different. But Vince’s focus was on America, and who could blame him?
‘We did a couple of universities in Britain,’ says Pete, ‘and then we went to Italy – went down a storm in Italy. So, a couple of little excursions and then it was the big one: the States and Canada as well.’
Vince had already toured in America, with Arthur Brown’s Crazy World in 1969, but for Pete French it was to be a new experience and a great training ground: ‘It was like driving a high-speed motor car for the first time,’ he says, ‘going out to address an alien audience for the first time, who expect an awful lot ‘cos they’ve seen everything. We were going onstage with Alice Cooper, with Cactus, with Yes – top acts. And you’ve got to be as good.’
The live set included both of the UK hits and selections from the two most recent albums: ‘We did ‘Tomorrow Night’, that was good fun,’ says Pete, ‘and ‘Breakthrough’, ‘Breaking The Ice’, ‘Decision/Indecision’ – I really liked ‘Decision/Indecision’. My favourite on the whole album though was ‘Breakthrough’. We also did ‘Devil’s Answer’ and ‘Death Walks Behind You’; ‘Head In The Sky’ was a good rocker; ‘The Price’… Actually, I hated doing ‘The Price’. This line, ‘You can take my soul, do it, do it’, singing this on a regular basis didn’t taste too good. It sounds corny, but I really didn’t like the intention. It was bleedin’ morbid. I could deal with all the rest, but not that one. I like rock’n’roll, looking on the bright side, really.
‘But of course doing those songs live things get a little more exciting, you extend things a little and so on. And Vincent had his featured spots in the show – ‘Gershatzer’, ‘The Rock’, ‘Black Snake’… It was actually very good in America – I never left ‘cos I thought the band was crap onstage. Vincent was doing a whole showbiz trip, like [Keith] Emerson. It was a good show.’
Part-way through the tour the band slipped into Elektra Studios in Los Angeles, with the purpose of recording Pete’s vocal over the backing tracking track to ‘Devil’s Answer’. Clearly, Vince had been thinking ahead. Pete, meanwhile, was tickled just to be recording on the same microphone as Jim Morrison.
Things were rolling along pretty well, but Pete was having nagging doubts about his long-term future with Rooster on two levels: musically and personally.
‘What really hit me,’ he says, ‘was that, basically, I’m a rocker and when we did gigs with Cactus and I saw their rhythm section – Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, who are astronomically good, legends in America, and their guitarist was great – I was thinking, ‘Our band just can’t cut this’. I’ve got nothing against Steve Bolton, a nice guy, but he wasn’t like Jim McCarthy of Cactus, not one of those kind of players. There are guitar players who knock you off your seat and there are guitar players who play a part, and Steve wasn’t one to knock you off your seat. He played very adequately, but he didn’t sparkle. The album stands up on its own, but [offstage] Vincent’s attitude didn’t let a lot of sunshine in. I liked the guy, but I couldn’t see us being bosom buddies, down the pub having a laugh. He didn’t seem to want to socialise, and you can’t make people what they’re not. We’d do the gig and then Vincent would be in his hotel room, while the other guys would want to go out. So when I saw this rock’n’roll band playing their arses off and they said, ‘Would you care to join us?’…’
Pete would keep such talk to himself for a while yet, but from their new vocalist’s perspective things in the Rooster’s garden we not getting appreciably rosier:
‘Talking with him and Robert [Masters] at the time,’ says Pete, ‘Vince said, ‘Look Pete, the first tour we’re gonna lose money; the second tour hopefully we’ll at least break even; and the third tour we’ll make money.’ So he was projecting very positively, as one should, if you’re a professional, ‘cos it costs a lot of money to take a band to America. But I think Vince had a falling-out with Robert on that tour.’
Just because you’re a little paranoid doesn’t mean everyone’s out to get you, but Vince was taking no chances: ‘I think he’d had a bad experience with John,’ suggests Pete, ‘where John was trying to steal Vincent’s thunder, intentionally or otherwise. So he curtailed John and then he went into a shell, which made it very, very difficult to work with him. And without a team, you’re not a player, are you?’
While there were no BBC recordings made of the French line-up, the band did return home for a few days in the middle of the US tour to grasp probably the biggest UK concert opportunity of their career: third on the bill to The Who and The Faces, with an audience of 31,000, at a one-day festival at the Oval Cricket Ground, in aid of George Harrison’s Bangladesh appeal, on September 18th 1971.
‘I don’t want to say anything bad about Vincent because I did like his ability as a musician,’ says Pete, ‘but he was rather shrewd with his pennies, which didn’t make it easy for me. I was on a wage, but it was a small wage and it could get a little bit tight. When it came down to us doing this big return-home gig at the Oval with The Who and all that, I was left to get a bloody bus to the gig! It’s just not how you should treat your team. If anyone’s got any talent they’re not going to stick around and be treated like serfs – they want to be given some level of respect. I think it must have been to do with his depression.
‘[But] the gig was wonderful. And hearing Keith Moon saying to Rod Stewart, in his leopard skin pants, ‘Get your big fairy’s arse up there you faggott,’ as he’s walking onstage – it was so funny! The whole vibe was wonderful, a bit of magic, a big buzz of excitement, and I thought we did a bloody good show. We had some PA problems though I suspect the people who were headlining had control of the volume, shall we say – and you can’t argue with that!’
Rooster returned to America to finish their tour, but after the Oval fiasco Pete – a writer of songs, in every other band he’s been in, as well as a singer – had probably seen enough to make him wary of committing to Vince’s team for the long haul. He was still there when the band were reviewed (in a not terribly enthusiastic fashion) by Melody Maker at a Thursday night show in Newcastle, late January 1972, but not for much longer:
‘In some ways, in retrospect,’ he suggests, ‘I think maybe I should have followed it through with Rooster, but I was getting negative vibes from Robert Masters – I don’t think he was managing the situation very well – and Vincent was very depressed, possibly because of that as well. You’ve got to get really close to the individual if you’re writing together, and if someone’s closing themselves away it’s very difficult. And this is where I thought I might have a bit of trouble, ‘cos you’d have to sit around that piano with Vincent and I’m like, ‘Yeeeahhh!!!!’ and Vincent’s sort of like, ‘Hmm, well, wait a minute…’
Pete decided to accept that offer to join Cactus in America. People leaving Atomic Rooster was a pretty regular occurrence, but not when it was their own choice:
‘Vincent didn’t want to lose me. He said, ‘Who the bloody hell do you think you are? You can’t go to America!’ And I said something like, ‘Watch this space…’ I can’t knock the guy, but he didn’t help me stay with the band, and then he resented the fact that Cactus had asked me to join. I saw Vincent afterwards though, after I’d left. Sometime later I went over to see him, again at Camden and we dabbled on a few ideas at his piano. So we were still mates, still talking.’
Momentarily wrong-footed perhaps, Crane pulled himself together and simply called up Chris Farlowe, veteran British soul man and, for good or ill, destined to be the only vocalist in Rooster to last for two consecutive albums. The first of those albums, Made In England – written, recorded and released (in June 1972) with amazing speed – probably came closest of all the Rooster albums to realising Vince’s soul/prog fusion nirvana and, though commercially unsuccessful, still stands alone as a truly unique work of the progressive rock era.
By then but a casual observer, Pete French’s view of such a radical change in Rooster’s sound was presumably, given the inarguable deterioration in their record sales, reflected in significant numbers among their fan base:
‘I thought it had lost direction,’ says Pete. ‘I thought, ‘That’s not Rooster’. There were some ideas we were kicking around as a four-piece which were sounding quite promising – that to me was Atomic Rooster, young, energetic, good image. Farlowe’s a unique artist. I’ve seen him at gigs, he’s done some great stuff, he’s a great showman and I’ve respect for him as anyone should have. But he’s not in the Rooster idiom.’
Sometimes divided, in people’s minds, into the ‘John Cann era’ and the ‘Chris Farlowe era’, the Rooster story is in fact a more subtle one. In between each of these totemic versions of the true Rooster was the Rooster that might have been king – the virtually ex-pat Rooster, with Pete French their Daltrey, Plant and Gillan. Regrettably, it was the potentially world-beating line-up of Rooster allowed to wither on the vine for the sake of a cab fare and a smile or two from Vince. But then, for all his obsessing on ‘the right people’ and ‘the right sound’, Vince wasn’t a well man. He remains, however, a man of great musical value and primacy, as Pete French is only too willing to acknowledge:
‘I liked Vincent; he was a truly interesting person. He had his own sound, a beautiful sound, and he was an original. You can never take that away from him. Sometimes I listen to the music we did and I think to myself, ‘Bloody good, yeah!’ And I did enjoy doing it – it was so original. Bands like Cactus, they rock it about, throw it from wall to wall but there’s nothing really original, nothing like ‘Breakthrough’ or ‘Tomorrow Night’. So you’ve got to give him the credit.
‘I remember Jeff Beck once said to me, ‘It’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out that makes it interesting’ – because you’ve got space, you can hear what’s going on. I was always impressed with the production on In Hearing Of and I think quite a bit of it was down to Vincent. I couldn’t put a lot of my identity on it because it was John Cann’s feed lines and the keys were already established – I was singing in John Cann’s key. But as it worked out I think I did quite a good job on it. Vincent made it a more sellable sound, because it left some space. It’s lean – which is great for vocals.
‘The only thing I found difficult with Vince – and it wasn’t his musical integrity, I can’t fault that at all, it was a very good education for me – was that he was very depressive. When we did the American tour he was a very shut-off guy to try and get to know – not impolite or rude, but very inside himself. He had a mad act on the stage, and we could have a good laugh with that, but [offstage] he was incredibly serious and very withdrawn and it’s very difficult to get on the warm side of somebody when they’re like that – you don’t get a lot of feedback, which was a shame.’
Vincent Crane, having lived with depression for years and after various attempts to revive Rooster in the 1980s, took his own life in 1989. But what ever happened to Pete French? Having worked with various bands over the course of the seventies, and having auditioned for many of the great names in rock – and somehow just not finding that main chance that would make him a major player – Pete left music completely following the release of his solo album, Ducks In Flight, in 1981. But now that situation is set to change: ‘Just recently I walked into the Eel Pie Club [in London],’ he says, ‘bumped into a musician friend and ended up getting up and doing a couple of songs – and I can honestly say I went down a storm. It was like riding a bike!’ A few charity shows on and Pete, his voice apparently as good as ever, is now comfortable with the idea of making another album, getting a website together and doing whatever it is musicians in the 21st century do. Once again, watch this space…