Step Away from the Greta Van Fleet: Ten Obscure Hard-Rock Gems from the 1970s

For the last time, rock isn’t dead—but there’s still a lot that could use a revival. 
Step Away from the Greta Van Fleet: Ten Obscure Hard-Rock Gems from the 1970s

For the last time, rock isn’t dead—but there’s still a lot that could use a revival. 

Words: Alex Machock

November 20, 2018

As a teenager, I was hopelessly obsessed with classic rock—not exactly a shock for a white dude from the suburbs. Yet, for a brief minute there, it seemed like everyone else was as well. The Mars Volta made a lucrative living playing prog rock…in 2005. The Hold Steady became the biggest thing in indie rock by drunkenly ranting over Springsteen songs. And remember when we thought Wolfmother was a good idea? Does “Joker and the Thief” still soundtrack every bad action-comedy movie trailer, or did that trend finally die?

Anyway, I digress: The ’70s retro-rock fad comes and goes quickly, just in the same way that Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd are liable to blow impressionable minds for a couple years or so before most move on to hipper, more contemporary tastes. But to a rockist nerd with an Internet connection in the heyday of Blogspot, I couldn’t get enough, and it was down the rabbit hole of long forgotten knucklehead music. And at this very moment, a certain bunch of ’70s cosplaying bozos are being pushed as the HOTTEST NEW THING in a grand orchestration of dad-rock pageantry. If that sounds up your alley, I’m here and armed with a worthless arsenal of hard-rock arcana to tell you that there are plenty of better ways to satiate that sweet lizard-brain impulse. Have you long run out of Led Zeppelin albums to get excited about? Thin Lizzy and Mountain don’t cut it anymore? Here are ten classic rock rarities you are liable to have never heard before. Best thing about them: they’re actually from the ’70s! Costume rock is lame.

In trying to determine what truly makes a record “obscure,” I settled on at least one solid ground rule: absolutely no chart presence whatsoever. Bands your uncle remembers, such as Cactus or Atomic Rooster, don’t make the cut, no matter how fleeting the success they might have experienced. So whether you share the same antisocial music habits as me, or you just want to be in the know for what will inevitably be the newest Kanye West sample, dig in. For the love of god, just don’t touch that Greta Van Fleet album.

10. Randy Holden — Population II (1970)

Randy Holden seems like a strange guy. A self-proclaimed “Guitar God,” as noted on his Angelfire-tastic webpage, Holden had at one time replaced guitarist Leigh Stephens from noted volume dealers Blue Cheer, appearing on 1969’s New! Improved! before quickly leaving to stake out a would-be solo career of his own. According to his Papyrus-fonted autobiography, Holden’s thing was to be fuckin’ LOUD, man. Armed with a bevy of high-wattage Sunn amplifiers, he formed a self-proclaimed “power duo” with some dude named Chris Lockheed (from a band named “Kak,” no less), who played drums and bass-keyboard simultaneously (I don’t even know how to picture this), and Population II was the result. One of the most stoned sounding albums ever made, full of glacially-paced tempos, doomy riffs, and completely random pentatonic guitar spasms, Population II takes bluesy hard rock and melts it into pure narcotic torpor. A genuine sonic melding of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, of course it makes the list.

9. Ramses — La Leyla (1976)

Heavy-organ prog, here’s your shout-out. A truly despicable subgenre, it’s full of songs that are way too long, comprised of listless jams, endless noodling, and stupid hippie-shit lyrics—most of these obscurities are obscure for good reason. Don’t touch ’em, even if that two-hundred dollar price tag sounds like a bargain! The German group Ramses, by all measures, shares some of that same DNA, no doubt. Yet what sets them apart and elevates them onto this list is the amount of cartoonish, way-over-the-top prog/synth wizardry they add into the mix, making for unabashedly corny fun.

Listen to that truly epic intro; with harmonized guitar-and-synth trills, it deserves a Laserium light show all its own. The rest of the album features similar displays of showoff-y musical prowess paired with a Byzantine approach to song structure and a relentless self-seriousness. Picture a really long Deep Purple concert with even less soul. Of the band’s releases, La Leyla is the first and best of the bunch, with their subsequent albums being a little too soft and cheesy to truly enjoy for any length of time. Ramses attracts a niche-among-niche audience, but no other ’70s castoffs can truly test your patience and inspire as much air guitar-ing at the same damn time.

8. Stray — Stray (1970)

Toiling in the shadows of the UK’s hard-rock scene was Stray, who offered what many others of their psychedelically damaged peers could not: harmonies! Mere teenagers at the time of recording their eponymous debut album, Stray translate their adolescent infatuation with bands like The Beatles and The Hollies into undeniable hooks, melding close-harmony choruses with a fuzzed-out guitar assault. Just listen to the Hawkwind-meets-The-Amboy-Dukes rave up of “All in Your Mind,” which stands toe-to-toe with anything ever released by more-celebrated British underground heavies such as The Groundhogs or Pink Fairies. Though they would go on to record plenty more albums and slowly morph into a more boring version of Marmalade, Stray is the least polished and most fun, with an undeniable excitement in its sloppy exuberance.

7. Lucifer’s Friend — Lucifer’s Friend (1970)

Another group of less-than-subtle German rockers partial to the Hammond organ, Lucifer’s Friend live on in the hearts of skateboarders thanks to Jamie Thomas and his always hesher-friendly skate video soundtracks: Fallen Footwear’s Ride the Sky is named after and features the opening track of the band’s self-titled 1970 debut. During its best moments, Lucifer’s Friend is as heavy as anything released during its time; with their Sabbath-esque bluster and a singer that sounds like Dio, you can’t get more proto-metal than this. Though the occult-friendly vibe permeates even the more standard ’70s rock fare on here, it’s the aforementioned “Ride the Sky” that is the true highlight. With twin-guitar gnarmonies, falsetto vocal operatics, and a battle-cry French horn to push the whole thing over the top, it’s exactly the sort of sound Judas Priest would be lauded for doing a whole seven years later.

6. Traffic Sound — Lux (1971)

The overly Anglo representation on this list is glaring, no doubt, so it must be mentioned that there were plenty of heavy-minded freaks toiling all over the globe in those burnout days, not just in the oxygen-stealing US and UK scenes. Give credit to groups such as Flower Travellin’ Band from Japan, who released the apocalyptic Satori in 1971, a heavily-distorted assault that could have easily been slotted on this list. And then there’s Peru’s Traffic Sound, a psychedelic outfit whose Lux stands toe-to-toe in quality with anything put out by their lily-white counterparts. With plenty of mellow, acoustic-leaden numbers among its heavier moments, Lux might not be as 100-percent HAHD RAWK as some of these other albums, but this is by far one of the more nuanced releases here; incorporating elements of cumbia, mambo, and folk, as well as weird, non-guitar instruments like saxophone and flute. Rest assured that they can get loud when they want: just listen to the impossibly fuzzed-out bass guitar that graces the title track, which hits the ears like a haymaker to the gut. Think Santana meets Jethro Tull. No wait, please come back, it’s good I swear.

5. Aphrodite’s Child — 666 (1972)

By no means a household name, Greece’s Aphrodite’s Child did feature—OK, I’m breaking my own rules here—a Billboard-charting single to their name (reaching number twenty-nine in the UK) with 1968’s Pachelbel-quoting “Rain and Tears,” as well a pair of genuine stars: operatic-styled pop singer/cult-leader-looking-motherfucker Demis Roussos and the group’s mastermind, composer Vangelis of Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire fame. However, the Aphrodite’s Child of their first two albums, a pleasant sort of Procol Harum–styled baroque pop group, is nothing like the band that appears on their third and final record, the concept-heavy, massively overstuffed 666. Based on the Book of Revelation, this double album follows an absurd pseudo-narrative about a circus and the apocalypse and yada yada yada.

Like all concept albums, it’s a bunch of nonsense that you don’t really have to pay attention to, because it’s the music we’re here for. And boy, the music on 666 is a trip. Veering between crushing hard rock, piano-led balladry, proggy keyboard indulgence, and whatever the nightmare of “” can be classified as, 666 is one of the most bonkers records to ever be bankrolled by a major label. Songs drift in and out of being, seemingly at will, with long instrumental passages and ominous chants/narration tying all these disparate pieces together. Oh, and it sounds amazing, too, as the production apparently cost a fortune. By the time the record was released, the band had already broken up—and though it failed to chart or make any money, 666 lives on as an amazing relic of a time when unchecked ambition and unlimited budgets could coexist in the music industry, allowing shit like this to exist.

4. Armageddon — Armageddon (1975)

Armageddon was a would-be supergroup that formed about four years after people stopped caring about supergroups. Featuring notably less-successful but coolest-looking Yardbird Keith Relf among journeyman drummer Bobby Caldwell and two members from Steamhammer (who, yes, were essentially the same thing as Blues Hammer), Armageddon never really had a shot. Their one and only album was released on A&M Records, but poor management, drug problems, and Relf’s own troubles with emphysema led to the group disbanding before Relf’s untimely death a year later caused by electrocution-via-guitar. Yet the potential was there: Armageddon is a forgotten hard rock gem. Sounding at times like a much heavier version of Yes (or a less obnoxious Rush), Relf and company give their portentous heaviness an oh-so-slight prog-tinge, stretching out muscular riffs and a pummeling rhythm section over intricate arrangements and extended song lengths, all with titles that read like Tolkien chapters. In fact, even though the album is just five tracks spanning over forty minutes (because the ’70s), Armageddon manages to be remarkably taut, interesting, and utterly devoid of aimless noodling…well, until the very end, at least.

3. Sir Lord Baltimore — Kingdom Come (1970)

For a list that features nothing but testosterone-fueled silliness, it’s no small feat being the most over-the-top band among the bunch. Playing a sort of high-strutting arena rock reminiscent of KISS with the amphetamine energy of MC5, Sir Lord Baltimore manage to nail almost every hard-rock cliché imaginable in the space of nearly forty minutes. There’s the absurd band name, for one, along with songs like “Lady of Fire” (which begins with a Robert Plant–worthy exhalation of “FIIIIIIIIRREEEEE”), “Hell Hound,” and “I Got a Woman,” all of which sound exactly how you’d imagine. There’s the prerequisite medieval/fantasy masquerade on the harpsichord-led “Lake Isle of Innersfree [sic].”

Pick at any of these separate threads and it might play like a joke; Brooklyn’s very own Spinal Tap well before Spinal Tap. What is undeniable is that there is genuinely not a dull moment to be had here. You can tell the band is having a blast ripping through these songs at breakneck pace, and that fun is infectious. While it might be hard to tell exactly how much tongue is in cheek at times, Sir Lord Baltimore deliver a wildly entertaining hard rock album that is remarkably well produced and well played. In a weird way, whether you either love or completely hate all of the other bands in this article, you’re guaranteed to at least find something enjoyable about Kingdom Come.

2. Captain Beyond — Captain Beyond (1972)

Another failed supergroup of B-list rock stars, Captain Beyond included Deep Purple’s first vocalist Rod Evans (of “Hush” fame), Iron Butterfly guitarist Larry Reinhardt, and the ever-present ’70s drummer-for-hire Bobby Caldwell in his second appearance on this list. Out of any band listed here, Captain Beyond probably had the most potential for rock and roll success: With their considerable talent and a legitimate label behind them, it’s a genuine disappointment that they never broke through. Their best showing is on their self-titled debut, a collection of tightly written tunes that all segue into one another, cycling through various motifs and melodies throughout. It’s a slightly psychedelic, vaguely proggy approach to some good ’ol heavy rock shit, full of big-ass riffs, bubbly bass, and stomping drums. Who would’ve guessed the Iron Butterfly dude could shred like this, man?

1. Leaf Hound — Growers of Mushroom (1971)

Really, it could be no other. With its legendary collector’s status and ’Tap-worthy title and cover, Growers of Mushroom might be the only ultra-expensive, hard-to-find rock rarity that is actually any good! A long-lost British group whose career was completely bungled by Decca Records, Leaf Hound started off as (what else?) a white blues combo named Black Cat Bones before taking a double shot of adrenaline and morphing into the ultimate hard rockin’ juggernaut. The nine tracks of the original release are all-killer, no-filler; a perfect amalgamation of Led Zeppelin and Free, with a little Hendrix thrown in for good measure. If you’re a fifteen-year-old stoner looking for life after In Through the Out Door, it’s a dream come true.

Now, Growers of Mushroom is not the most original record by any means, and I’m pretty sure the end of “With a Minute to Go” rips off “What Is and What Should Never Be”—hard—but Greta Van Fleet this ain’t. Leaf Hound add plenty of clever wrinkles to what is, even by 1971, a well-worn sound. There are the jazz chords that adorn the perquisite lengthy blues jam “Work My Body.” The playful, boneheaded psychedelia of the title track, delivered with some light Deep Purple organ. And managing to fit nearly every cool hard rock device possible (cowbell and all) in the immortal “Freelance Fiend,” a three-minute high-five of a song. A sweaty, swaggering performance full of flashy licks and throat-shredding vocal heroics, it’s like the banger off of Zep’s II that never was. Of course, you could ask “why not just listen to Led Zeppelin”? To which I say: How are you still even reading this? FL