Cult Heroes No. 46: Molly Hatchet
It’s amazing how an eye-catching album cover image can help define your perception of a band. It wouldn’t happen nowadays, of course – not with iPods as wafer-thin as Posh Spice’s profile, and impersonal electronic downloads that might give you a song’s timing down to the last nanosecond, but tell you precious little about its soul.
Words: Geoff Barton
When vinyl reigned supreme, a great record sleeve would often enhance your estimation of the 12-inch disc it encased. Some obvious candidates spring to mind. Roger Dean’s futuristic visions summed up Yes’s music in a nutshell – even if that nutshell was shaped like a mushroom and had tentacles growing out of it.
Derek Riggs’s early interpretations of Maiden’s monster, Eddie, were almost as important as the Irons’ music.
And would Pink Floyd have been a lesser band if those mind-boggled madmen at Hipgnosis hadn’t created many of their covers? If you answered that question in the affirmative, no one would seriously question your sanity.
Which brings us to Molly Hatchet. For their first, self-titled album, released in 1978, the Jacksonville, Florida boogie outfit employed Frank Frazetta as their artist. It proved to be an astute move.
Frazetta (who sadly died on May 10 of last year) was expert at depicting broadsword-wielding barbarians and scantily clad sorceresses. Molly Hatchet were certainly no Manowar, but Frazetta’s fantasy images somehow provided the perfect fit for their music, by Crom!
After all, the band were named after a 17th Century axe murderess called Abigail ‘Hatchet Molly’ – a prostitute from Salem, Massachusetts who would behead and mutilate her lovers. So, in all honestly, you couldn’t really have pictures of pussycats on your covers.
Molly Hatchet’s first two albums – their debut and Flirtin’ With Disaster, which was released in 1979 – were mightily successful. The former sold a million copies right off the block; the latter was a Top 20 smash in America.
Amazingly, Frazetta – or at least his wife – claimed credit for the band’s success. As Molly Hatchet guitarist Dave Hlubek recalled: “It was good working with Frank but by the time we came to the cover of Beatin’ The Odds, the price had trebled. Frank’s business manager was also his wife; I asked her why so much for our third album cover and she said: ‘My husband’s paintings made your band!’ Well, we’ve never had a hit album cover played across the radio waves so we stopped doing business with her.”
Changes were also afoot elsewhere in the Molly Hatchet camp at this time. Beatin’ The Odds was the first of their releases to feature vocalist Jimmy Farrar, the replacement for original frontman Danny Joe Brown. Then came Take No Prisoners, Hatchet’s fourth and Farrar’s second with the group. It was also the first Molly Hatchet record to feature cover art by Boris Vallejo, the replacement for Frazetta. I hope you’re following this; there’ll be a test later.
Opinions were split on the merits of Farrar as Molly Hatchet’s new singer. Brown’s gruff-but-mellow voice certainly had a depth and conviction that Farrar couldn’t match. But Farrar, to his credit, added a touch of blue-eyed soul to Molly Hatchet’s southern rock core. Indeed, few outside the closeted southern rock community appeared to care too much about the change in vocalists. Beatin’ The Odds got to No.25 in the US album chart in 1980 and Take No Prisoners peaked at No.36 in 1981.
Talking about Danny Joe Brown’s departure, Hlubek once said: “We were in the middle of a mega-stardom trip; Molly Hatchet had sold, like, two-and-a-half to three million albums in two years. I just went completely schizo. Danny and myself couldn’t see eye to eye on a few things musically and his lifestyle conflicted with mine. He had only just found out that he was a diabetic, which was very hard for him to handle.”
Molly Hatchet’s manager, Pat Armstrong, stepped in and recommended Farrar as Brown’s successor. “I know this guy up in Grange, Georgia. He’s ugly but he can sing,” Armstrong told the band.
Hlubek explained: “So we got him on the phone that night and I said: ‘This is Dave Hlubek of Molly Hatchet.’ And Jimmy had the cheek to come back with: ‘Molly who?’ Then I said: ‘Can you sing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I can sing, but I’m real ugly; I can clear a coliseum.’ He did not lie!”
Farrar first rehearsed with Molly Hatchet at a club the band had rented, The Warehouse in Macon, Georgia. Hlubek later asked him if he was ready to join the band, to which Farrar replied: “Is a hog’s ass ham?”
But Farrar’s time was short-lived. Take No Prisoners proved to be his final album for Molly Hatchet, after which Danny Joe Brown returned for 1983’s No Guts… No Glory. In the intervening period Brown had formed his own outfit, the shrewdly titled Danny Joe Brown Band.
Hlubek: “Jimmy couldn’t handle the pressures. We were going into 20,000-seat arenas and filling about a quarter of them.”
Farrar responded: “The main reason I left Molly Hatchet was because of my kids. I saw my son the day he was born. Then I picked up my bag, walked out of the hospital and went on tour. I didn’t see him again until he was three months old. So I decided my children were more important than my music, and I came home.”
Farrar was with Molly Hatchet for two years exactly. He played his first show with them on May 9, 1980 at Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia; his last was on May 9, 1982 at Six Flags in Atlanta, Georgia.
For an album that’s 30 years old, Take No Prisoners has worn the test of time pretty well. When they started out Molly Hatchet welded hard rock boogie with guitar jam-oriented southern rock. They took the best aspects of southern rock bands like .38 Special and Blackfoot and mixed them with in-your-face production, initially courtesy of the legendary Tom Werman, known for his fine work with Ted Nugent and Cheap Trick.
It was a successful formula. Molly Hatchet helped fill the chasm left when that terrible plane crash ruined the ranks of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The timing was spot-on.
On Take No Prisoners the band refined their sound somewhat. The tracks are short, sharp and to the point. Apart from the occasional aberration such as Long Tall Sally, which begins as a slow-tempo’d plod before gathering steam, the record storms along nicely – if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
Bloody Reunion is a typical roughneck tale of ‘the boys’ tearing up the town on a Saturday night; All Mine sees Farrar getting very possessive about his ‘woman’, although I’m rather disturbed by the carving knife analogy; and Dead Giveaway might be southern rock by numbers, but it’s rescued by a killer rolling riff.
In truth, the only two real bones of contention are Respect Me In The Morning, which includes vocal interplay with Joyce ‘Baby Jean’ Kennedy of Mother’s Finest, and Lady Luck, which has a horn section that could’ve been sampled from a Phil Collins solo record.
Molly Hatchet have survived line-up changes galore and are still going strong. Their most recent release, 2010’s Justice, matched Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most recent release God & Guns blow-by-blow, in my ever-discerning suvvern view.
Hatchet’s current singer is Phil McCormack. Danny Joe Brown sadly died on March 10, 2005. His obituary listed the cause as renal failure and pneumonia. He was 53. Happily Jimmy Farrar is a still going strong as the frontman with the Southern Rock Allstars, and he’s also a member of a Hatchet offfshoot band called Gator Country.
Meanwhile, Molly Hatchet themselves are playing this year’s Sweden Rock festival. What are the odds of a UK show? High Voltage, anyone? The petition starts here…
Check out all of Classic Rock‘s previous Cult Heroes here.