Various – Riding The Rock MachineVarious – Riding The Rock Machine – album review

Grapefruit

3CD/DL

Released 23 April 2021

3CD boxset looking at pure 1970s rock music, with contributions from big names like Thin Lizzy, The ‘Orrible Who and The Faces, plus lesser lights such as Babe Ruth, Hard Stuff and Trapeze. Ian Canty is on loon pants duty for this one…

Classic rock. There I said it and for the the few that didn’t immediately click off from this page after seeing the phrase, thank you for remaining to read some more. After all, it wasn’t all bad. Take the track that kicks off this new Riding The Rock Machine boxset, which is Rainbow’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. Yep it may well be more than a bit cliched, but it is also pretty exciting as well. I know after punk’s year zero schtick we weren’t meant to enjoy this kind of stuff ever again, but all these years on it seems more than a little daft not grant the music a fair hearing. If one enters with an open mind, there is a lot of fun to be had on this collection which highlights rock in its basic form.

On disc one of this set after Rainbow’s bombastic but pleasurable opener and the racing, organ-led Easy Livin’ by Uriah Heep, we get the “everything but kitchen sink” production rush of The Moody Blues’ mad I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band). Yes, it may be a bit “on the nose” lyrically, but that is what Riding The Rock Machine is about, a no nonsense celebration of riff power. Foghat’s Slow Ride, which I had previously encountered whilst trying my hand unsuccessfully at Guitar Hero, is really the basic rock thud as an attitude. A nice funky bass-line sees the verses through, in what elsewhere is a textbook case of heads-down relentlessness. Something that is surely one of the touchstones of classic rock.

The Who and The Faces were perhaps at the top of the tree as live acts went in the early to mid 1970s (though The Stones and Led Zeppelin would no doubt have contested that) and it is only right and proper that they both feature on Riding The Rock Machine. The Faces are represented by their big hit single Cindy Incidentally, which grooves along in a lithe but chunky fashion. Ian McLagan’s keyboards on this one are a real delight. Success Story, a John Entwistle song from The Who By Numbers, is one-time High Numbers’ jangly country rock contribution here. Trapeze were Glenn Hughes’ pre-Deep Purple act and appear in a similar mode to The Faces and Free on Black Cloud, an archetypal and fab hard-nosed rocker.

Coming at things from a more glam angle were Birmingham’s Blackfoot Sue, who supply us with a mighty stomper in Standing In The Road, false ending and all. They sound like Slade’s little brothers, which is not a bad thing at all. It makes sense to mention Sweet’s sparky Action single here too, though they had moved away from the glam slam by the time this was recorded in 1975. Fancy’s She’s Ridin’ The Rock Machine is a catchy, funky tune with a nicely cynical lyric and gives this boxset its title. You can’t really highlight UK rock in the 1970s without mentioning The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and they shine on their rhythmic classic Boston Tea Party, with soaring guitar adding to the fun.

I have to admit though that I found the second disc of Riding… not quite as satisfying as the first. There are some good moments, but there is also a lot of middling AOR without the sheer rock power that marks out the better examples of the form. Nazareth’s edgy, slip-sliding rhythm of This Flight Tonight is enjoyable though despite some daft lyrics and Wishing Well by Free has, as one might suspect, plenty of hard rock hammer to spare. Out Of Your Head by Welsh band Man is good stuff too with a neat touch of psych fuzz mixed into the rough and tumble, something which only adds to its appeal.

Hawkwind aim their space rock more towards glam/punk mode on the super and louche Quark, Strangeness And Charm. The tune sits a little incongruously on this disc, nevertheless it is always good to hear. Joining the Hawks in the proto punk stakes on this disc are Silverhead, represented by the lively and infectious motorbiking song Ace Supreme and the cool Only After Dark by Mick Ronson is quite wonderful. Curved Air prove there was far more to them than Back Street Luv on the imaginative U.H.F., which moves playfully in and out of a standard rock format with lovely more serene sections and Rococo’s Hoodlum Fun is full of rough riffing and attitude.

Stray are usually good fun and so it proves on their raw and rocky take of Cliff’s Move It and Maggot, Opportunity Knocks winners under the name Strawberry Jam, give us an inventive demo in Shoelace that was unlucky not to lead anywhere. There are some great harmony vocals and a real drive present here, showing plenty of promise that wasn’t realised. A shame. In the interest of fairness punk’s bogeymen ELP’s disc closer Lucky Man shimmers coolly. Perhaps it doesn’t truly chime in with Riding The Rock Machine’s classic rock remit, but what the hell it is totally charming.

The final disc of this set beginning with no-one’s idea of classic rockers, Roxy Music. You probably don’t need me to tell you Street Life is right out of the top drawer either. Be-Bop Deluxe, always sliding all over the shop in a brilliant and exciting manner, give us the fine Maid In Heaven, with Bill Nelson at the peak of his game. Family sound as unusual and special as ever on their deserved UK top five hit In My Own Time and horns and guitar meld well on Atomic Rooster’s single Devil’s Answer. Their spin-off band Hard Stuff do good things on the raging funk rock of Monster In Paradise and National Flag impress with the unissued at the time effort Blowing A Million, cocksure boogie par excellence.

Thin Lizzy, another top live draw at the time, feature with Jailbreak. Though people have rather cottoned on to the weakness of the chorus’ lyric conceit over the years, musically it remains a fine example of muscular hard rock. New York City Groove, a big hit for Hello, gets another run out and pop boffins 10CC have an album version of their pure pop nugget Life Is A Minestrone featured. Smokestack Crumble, an obscure group from South Shields with drummer Paul Thompson in their line-up who would later join Roxy, grant us the perky and pleasingly nutty Got A Bad Leg.

The Winkies, again with a Roxy link but this time through Eno who used them as his backing band, offer us a cool rejigging of Peggy Lee’s Fever. Mott The Hoople could always kick up a rock & roll storm with the best of them, but the thoughtful Ready For Love/After Lights adds another layer of interest. It’s good to hear a few female voices on here as 70s UK rock was very much a boys club unfortunately. Babe Ruth’s uptempo, freewheeling rocker Jack O’ Lantern provides a fitting showcase for the great Jenny Haan’s powerful vocals. The set ends with Argent’s God Gave Rock And Roll To You, which some may know from the Kiss cover that was in the film Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey. The groovy organ swirls of the Argent take that is presented here, for me give it a decided edge.

Riding The Rock Machine skirts around glam, progressive, art rock and even a little proto punk occasionally, with the only possible unifying thing appearing to be elements of gung-ho attack. Even that fades at times, but the upside of that is that it makes for variety. This collection fits in a jigsaw-puzzle fashion with Grapefruit’s other boxsets from the same period and there is unavoidably a certain amount of overlap, with some bands putting in an appearance on a few of them. Still, for anyone who enjoys this kind of sound but can only imagine classic rock through UK radio’s narrow definition from their “set in stone” playlists, this boxset should broaden your horizons nicely. If, like me, Riding The Rock Machine is outside your usual listening habits, it makes for an entertaining way to start exploring.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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