Cult Heroes No. 38: Edgar Winter
As a spotty teenager scouring the record shops in the early 1970s, The Edgar Winter Group’s They Only Come Out At Night was most definitely the scariest album to occupy the racks. And that included anything by The Bay City Rollers.
By Geoff Barton
The cover to They Only Come Out At Night depicted Edgar – the self-styled ‘albino keyboard wizard’ – in the full-on throes of terminal glamdrogyny, a style being popularised at the time by David Bowie and his strange transatlantic cousin Jobriath.
Yet while those two’s looks were arty and stylised, Edgar’s style was just plain weird. With his porn-star lipstick, his chintzy costume-jewellery necklace and cheek-stud, his hair puffed out like pale blond candyfloss, his weedy bare chest and that glazed, far-distant look in his eyes, you got the feeling that, true to the album’s title (and true to a cockroach’s nocturnal habits), he did indeed only venture out after sundown. And when he did so, he walked on the wildest of wild sides.
But as it turns out, the truth behind the album’s title is much more prosaic:
“When I was a kid of around eight or nine we used to go to the cinema to watch the kids’ double-feature,” Edgar told Classic Rock. “One day I was standing in the lobby and this little boy and father came out of the auditorium. The boy had never seen anyone who looked like me before. The father leaned over to his son and whispered: ‘That’s an albino. They only come out at night!’”
But that’s Edgar for you: young, gifted and white. Very white.
Concerning the vampiric drag-queen image on the album’s sleeve, Edgar revealed in a recent BBC radio interview: “I was doing it mainly as a goof, just for a joke. It wasn’t really planned, but after I saw the shots [by Scavullo, a world famous fashion photographer], they were just so dramatic and remarkable.
“There were a lot of people at the time making every effort to do anything that was weird and bizarre. Alice Cooper for instance. Bowie was another. And I just thought it made a great cover! I saw it as a satirical comment on the times, but I was quite surprised when people took it seriously and were expecting me to come out on stage in drag. But nope, that was never gonna happen…”
Edgar Winter was born in December 1947 in Beaumont, Texas. He earned his chops in his older brother Johnny’s bands – including the endearingly titled Black Plague – and then went solo in the late 1960s. After his debut album Entrance he formed the rampant R&B combo Edgar Winter’s White Trash and cracked the US Top 30 with the double-live Roadwork, the band’s second album, in 1972.
Even though they were only local guys from Texas and Louisiana, White Trash featured a formidable array of musicians – most notably sensational vocalist/saxophonist Jerry LaCroix. But Edgar really upped the stakes when he formed The Edgar Winter Group later in 1972. He brought in two unknown musicians whose talents would later explode: singer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Hartman, and guitarist Ronnie Montrose. The former would soon score hits in his own right with the likes of Instant Replay and I Can Dream About You; the latter would go on to form heavy rock pioneers Montrose and link up with singer Sammy Hagar.
They Only Come Out At Night might just be Edgar Winter’s finest hour. “My manager said I owed my record company [Epic] a full-on rock’n’roll record,” said Edgar. “I felt the gauntlet had been thrown down. So I decided to form the quintessential all-American rock band. I was trying to prove to the label that we wanted a gargantuan hit record. On They Only Came Out At Night I went for the jugular – no pun intended.”
From the delightful disaffection of Hangin’ Around, the Doobie-esque Free Ride, the Spanish shuffle of Alta Mira, the Byrdsy ballad Round & Round and the proud strut of Rock’N’Roll Boogie Woogie (and hey, how many times did Kiss purloin that song’s basic, pumping riff?!), They Only Come Out At Night remains a mirthsome milestone in the history of good-time US rock’n’roll.
And then, of course, there was the album’s unlikely hit single, the instrumental Frankenstein.
Back at the beginning of the 1970s, Edgar had made it his business to do pioneering work with a wacky new gadget called the synthesiser. “It was a very sci-fi kind of instrument,” he recalled. “You could be the mad scientist of the keyboard. When I first saw it I thought: ‘It looks like you could put a strap on it and play it like a guitar.’”
Which is exactly what he did. When Edgar started to rock out at shows at the front of the stage with his strap-on keyboard – while wearing ever more outrageous costumes composed of satin, silk, feathers and God knows what else – it was one hell of a sight to behold. Meanwhile, back in the studio, he really brought his synthesiser talents to bear on Frankenstein.
“As far as I know, Frankenstein was actually the first track to feature the synthesiser as a lead instrument, and it came about out of my frustration at being stuck behind a stack of keyboards,” Edgar said.
Although it sounds spontaneous on record, the gestation of Frankenstein was anything but easy:
“We dissected the whole thing,” Edgar recalled. “There were pieces of tape lying over the backs of chairs and sofas, and we’re singing ‘ankle bone connected to the leg bone,’ joking about the whole thing. Our drummer [Chuck Ruff] says: ‘Man, it’s like Frankenstein.’ I like the concept of technology running amok, so thus the indestructible monster was born.”
They Only Come Out At Night was a phenomenal success for The Edgar Winter Group. Released in November 1972, it reached the heady heights of No.3 in the American album chart. Frankenstein performed even better: it was a No.1 single in the US and a No. 18 hit in the UK. Follow-up 45s Free Ride and Hangin’ Around maintained the impetus before it was time to release a follow-up album.
Shock Treatment in 1974 was a similar-sounding record to They Only Come Out At Night, with Rick Derringer replacing Ronnie Montrose on guitar. It rocks out with Some Kind Of Animal, Queen Of My Dreams and River’s Rising, and contains a couple of excellent ballads in Someone Take My Heart Away and Maybe Some Day You’ll Call My Name. However, it inexplicably failed to match the success of its predecessor, reaching only No.13 in the US. The singles from it – River’s Risin’ and Easy Street – struggled to Nos. 33 and 83 respectively in the States.
‘Shock Treatment is fun to listen to, even if it doesn’t produce anything substantial to ponder after it’s over,’ said a July 1974 review in Rolling Stone. But what, we wonder today, is the problem with that?
Listened to back-to-back more than 30 years down the line, both They Only Come Out At Night and Shock Treatment have a timeless appeal.
Or to put it another way: Winter is in season whatever the time of year.
Go here to read about Classic Rock‘s previous Cult Heroes.