Cult Heroes No.14: Atomic Rooster
It may seem odd to include a band who had hit singles and successful albums in this series. But Atomic Rooster have been all but forgotten over the past three decades. Time to redress the balance, and celebrate the Rooster booster in the latest in this Cult Heroes series. Check out all the other Cult Heroes.
Words: Malcolm Dome
The answer is Atomic Rooster. And if that seems an odd way to start this retrospective, there’s a reason. The reality is that, to most people, Atomic Rooster are a mere footnote in rock history, known solely for being the aforementioned answer to the following question: which band did drummer Carl Palmer quit to join ELP?
Yet, the Rooster deserve much more respect; their sound and style was as pioneering as those of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, both of whom were contemporaries of this severely underrated band.
The dilemma was hammered home to me recently when I talked to Purple bassist Roger Glover, who was extolling the virtues of Hammond organ players.
“Keith Emerson and Jon Lord were real pioneers. Oh, and the other bloke. The one from, you know, that band…Atomic Rooster.”
You mean, Vincent Crane?
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Blimey. Reduced to being ‘That Band’, eh? No wonder this lot need to be celebrated right here, right now.
Atomic Rooster were formed in 1969 by Palmer and Crane, both of whom had previously worked with the flamboyant, yet unpredictable Arthur Brown. Crane, a graduate of Trinity College Of Music in London, not only appeared on Brown’s 1968 hit Fire!, but also co-wrote it; his macabre, surreal approach to the Hammond organ immeasurably helped to invest the song with its own unique timbre a foretelling of what was to come.
Recalls Brown of how he met Crane:
“I had to leave France rather quickly, because my band had set fire to a club owned by the Mafia – not a sensible move. So I found myself in West Kensington. As luck would have it, the landlady of my lodgings had a daughter, who at the time was going out with a certain keyboard player called Vincent Crane. He used to rehearse upstairs, and I got to know him.”
While clearly talented and creative, Crane was already plagued by depression and psychiatric problems, which would blight the rest of his life; these forced his hospitalisation during an American tour with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, and threatened future plans.
However, with Palmer and vocalist/bassist Nick Graham, Crane eventually got Atomic Rooster off the ground, taking their name from a member of American band Rhinoceros (who claimed to have an alter ego called the Atomic Rooster!), with whom Crane had toured while with Brown. Their first live show was at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, with Deep Purple supporting, and by the end of that year, the trio were already working on what was to be their self-titled, debut album, released in February 1970.
While there’s a considerable retrospective belief that it was Sabbath who effectively invented heavy metal with their first album, listening back to that first record is enough to convince anyone that in fact Crane, Palmer and Graham can claim to have created the concept of heavy music as we know it today.
From first single Friday 13th onwards the record’s a haunting, ominous, paranoid journey. Crane’s dark keyboard approach was almost claustrophobic, leaving one with a sense of fear that few others at the time could match. Compared to Sabbath’s sub-blues B-movie Satanism (an exaggerated comment, of course, before you start moaning about me deriding the Sabs), this was all too real – a dive into the psychoses of a disturbed mind. The record made it to number 49 in the UK charts, which was a modest beginning.
By March 1970, former Andromeda guitarist John Cann had been brought in. But Graham’s almost immediate departure meant that the new man had to also handle vocals, while Crane played the bass lines on his Hammond.
However, an even bigger blow happened in June when Palmer quit to join new supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Says the drummer of that period:
“I had a very strong group in Atomic Rooster, which musically was where exactly I wanted to be. My only apprehension in leaving Atomic Rooster is that, you have to understand, it was kind of my band, I started the group. So, I had an agreement with the Atomic Rooster that I would disappear for a while and give this a shot.”
Eventually, Roster brought in 18-year-old Paul Hammond to replace Palmer, the new line-up releasing the album Death Walks Behind You in September 1970; this was to be the biggest record of their career, making it to number 12 in the UK charts and number 90 in America (the band’s best ever showing over there), while the single Tomorrow Night reached number 11 at the start of ’71. It seemed Atomic Rooster were on the verge of major success.
Interestingly, Tomorrow Night was first track recorded with Carl Palmer, as the man himself recalls:
“I cut the demo right before I left to join ELP, but I never played on the single that the band released. They used my replacement on that.”
Death Walks Behind You is unquestionably the band’s finest record. It’s gloomy, depressed approach was fired by fiery guitar-organ interplay, with Crane and Cann almost doing battle. There’s a belief that you’re listening to two highly talented individuals butting against one another, rather than complementing sounds – but it works brilliantly, The title track is a tour de force of tornado riffs and devilish melodies – more Satanic in delivery than almost anything else at the time; in a way, this is the first black metal track, such is its diabolical sense of imploding, imploring evil.
By the Summer of 1971, Atomic Rooster had expanded their line-up, by bringing vocalist Pete French. It was a choice that surprised many, not the least being the young hopeful himself.
“I’d just done an album with Leafhound called Growers Of Mushrooms, which Vincent really liked. So, he called me up one day and invited me down to his flat in Camden, North London. He sat at his piano, and we just jammed out some ideas.”
French was delighted to get a call from the Rooster asking him to go down to Trident Studios in Central London, where new album In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster was being recorded.
“To be honest, I was stunned. But went down, to find that the band had already done a lot of vocals with John; I was asked to replace what he’d done, which was a bit odd. But there was a magic about being in the studio with these guys. It was a terrific time.”
However, foreboding clouds were gathering, and French now admits he could sense the friction between Crane and Cann, something that would inevitably cause a major rift.
“I think part of the problem was that John and Vincent were very competitive.. There was obviously a serious issue between the pair, and it made for a very nasty working atmosphere.
“Around this time, John seemed to want to break up the band to do his own thing. He and Paul Hammond were already working on ideas for their own band called Bullett (it was originally named Daemon), and then Vincent fired both of them from Atomic Rooster.”
Despite these problems In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster was impressively diverse and powerful. It reached number 18 in Britain and made the Top 200 in the States, and the band also had a Top Five UK single with Devil’s Answer, recorded with Cann on vocals, prior to French being hired. There’s a second version of this song, featured on the US pressing of the album, with the new singer.
Subsequently, Crane hired drummer Ric Parnell (son of the famed UK big band leader Jack Parnell, and one of the drummers who ‘died’ in the Spinal Tap movie!) plus guitarist Steve Bolton. But the spark seemed to have gone, at least as far as French is concerned.
“Vincent took a lot of John’s guitar off the album, which was a shame as I think he’d done some great work. Steve – who’s not on the record – was a good guitarist in his own right. But he was no John Cann, and we missed him enormously. Ric (who’d briefly replaced Carl Palmer, before the arrival of Hammond) was a huge character and great laugh. But I honestly think the loss of John, in particular, was a blow from which we never recovered. Whatever their personal problems, he and Vincent really made Atomic Rooster work. For me, Steve was a safe bet. Vincent went for someone who’d do what he was told.”
An American tour in August/September 1971 (the band’s first and last) went well enough for French to catch the attention of legendary US band Cactus.
“We did a few shows with them out in the States,” recalls the vocalist. “They were looking for a singer ,and one day drummer Carmine Appice offered me the gig. Now, I was getting paid £60 a week with Rooster, which was peanuts. Carmine and bassist Tim Bogert offered me a lot more.”
French’s mind was made up on September 9, 1971, when Atomic Rooster played outdoors in front of 31,000 fans at The Oval in South London, on a bill headlined by The Who.
“I asked Vincent how we were all getting to the venue, and he said, ‘Take a bus!’. That was it for me. Not even the offer of a cab. So, I told him about the Cactus job. His response was, ‘Who do you think you are? You can’t do that’. Now, nobody tells me what to do, so I left.”
Atomic Rooster would never recover from these losses. Crane brought in soulful singer Chris Farlowe (who’d had a number one hit in Britain during 1966 with Out Of Time), but the output over the next couple of years was far removed from the band’s glory days, in terms of success and style. By 1975, Crane had put the Rooster to bed.
In 1979, though, they returned, Crane re-uniting with Cann (now known as John Du Cann). A self-titled album in 1980 was surprisingly well received – a partial return to the classic sound with Du Cann also on vocals – but the band again lurched rather than marched; line-up changes and confusion scuppering their aspirations. One single in 1981 Play It Again, seemed on the verge of being a hit, until fate intervened, as Du Cann explains:
“It had enough pre-orders to go in the UK charts at number 16, but the record plant went on strike and couldn’t produce enough copies and our label Polydor gave priority to Siouxsie And The Banshees. So, the single didn’t get pressed up to fill the quota.”
Du Cann again left. And, despite the presence of both Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Bernie Torme (ex-Gillan) playing guitar on the 1983 album Headline News (as well as Torme playing on the subsequent tour), Crane again decided to end the band. Tragically, on February 14, 1989, at the age of 45 the keyboardist passed away, after overdosing on painkillers, following a long history of manic depression.
Says guitarist Cann/Du Cann of his one-time bandmate:
“Vincent always had a bit of a mental problem; he went into a mental hospital three times. It was LSD that did for him, a bit like Peter Green and Syd Barrett.”
French, though disagrees.
“I doubt he could have been so sharp and alert in the studio, if he did have a drugs problem. For me, Vincent was a superb keyboardist and songwriter. He was certainly sensitive, and did seem to erect a barrier that was hard, if not impossible, to break down. The lines ‘Black snake living in a black hole/Hiding from the sun’ (on the Atomic Rooster song Decision/Indecision from the In The Hearing Of Atomic Rooster) gives you a clue as to his personality.
“But it was a privilege working with him, and I still believe that had John and Paul stayed in the band, we’d have been so much bigger in 1971. It’s such a shame that the world never saw Atomic Rooster fulfil our potential.”
Atomic Rooster did have success at the time. However, history hasn’t accorded them even close to the respect some of their peers enjoy. Which is why they might deserve to be legends, but are, in reality, cult heroes.
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Tags: Andromeda, Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster, Bernie Torme, Black Sabbath, Bullet, Cactus, Carl Palmer, Chris Farlowe, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Cult Heroes, Daemon, David Gilmour, Deep Purple, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Gillan, Jack Parnell, John Cann, Leafhound, Nick Graham, Paul Hammond, Pete French, Peter green, Pink Floyd, Rhinoceros, Ric Parnell, Roger Glover, Spinal Tap, Syd Barrett, The Who