Atomic Rooster “Death Walks Behind You”
Although it provided the background to my formative years as a musician, I’d be the first to admit that the late sixties/early seventies first wave of British progressive hard-rock veered wildly between creative sophistication and plodding self-indulgence. For every Led Zeppelin, there was a Black Sabbath; for every Deep Purple, an Edgar Broughton Band. (My apologies to adherents of those two combos.) Somewhere in the middle came the curiously-named Atomic Rooster, whose constantly changing line-up centred on keyboard wizard Vincent Crane released a series of undistinguished albums plus one genuine gem, the sophomore effort Death Walks Behind You.
Classically-trained organist and pianist Crane had been the instrumental cornerstone of wigged-out psych outfit The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, as witness his Hammond histrionics on their eponymous long-player. The Rooster should have satisfied Crane’s search for his own direction but, bedevilled by impatience, musical perfectionism and manic depression, he changed his style and his fellow musicians almost from year to year in search of a constantly moving and unattainable target. The second, and best, line-up teamed Crane with guitarist/vocalist John Cann, a.k.a. Du Cann, and drummer Paul Hammond. Cann had seen through the psychedelic era with Five Day Week Straw People and Andromeda and offered crunching rhythms and flyaway bluesy leads not unlike Ritchie Blackmore, whilst Hammond was a teenage tub-thumper with no real CV but just the sort of no-frills, aggressive style that Crane’s prevailing riff-tastic compositions demanded. In the best Jimmy Smith tradition, Crane played the bass lines on his pedals and on the bass-boosted low keyboard register of his B3. Between them they could sound as full as Deep Purple with two musicians fewer, and usually did.
At first sight slightly unnerving with its Dark Side imagery, but actually surprisingly accessible and in places even commercial – “Tomorrow Night” would become a top twenty single in the UK – Death Walks combines mostly straightforward but tightly-executed riff-based chord structures and bass lines with formulaic Gothic horror-inspired lyrics, overlaying these with energetic, optimistic soloing by the two frontmen. The net result is surprisingly “up” if you don’t take the words too seriously and aren’t put off by the cover art featuring William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar” and clichéd shots of the band in a graveyard. Mostly eschewing the possibilities of overdubbing in the studio, the tracks are largely played live, as evinced by the BBC radio session versions of two of the same tunes offered on the CD reissue as bonus tracks. (I recall hearing that actual session back in the day, and it’s clear that the trio was a hot live act.) The lightest moment is provided by “Tomorrow Night” with its catchy riff, singalong refrain and brief, soaring solos, whilst the title track is the most ponderous, starting with eerie piano arpeggios and creaking into the most leaden of descending chromatic chord sequences. Cann kicks off the surprisingly funky “Sleeping For Years” with what became his trademark feedback introduction. The oddly titled “Vug” and “Gershatzer” are instrumentals on which the band’s undoubted musicianship is given free rein, Cann and Crane exchanging lines in fine conversational style on the former while the latter confirms that Crane wasn’t far behind Keith Emerson in the deranged virtuosity stakes.
Death Walks proved the commercial and artistic zenith for all three band members. Crane carried an ever-mutating Rooster into the eighties before taking his own life in 1989. Hammond was badly injured in a road accident in 1973 and played only at intervals thereafter. Cann formed a praiseworthy and briefly popular hard-rock quartet, Bullet, a.k.a. Hard Stuff, but moved post-punk into uninspired power-pop which considerably diluted his talent. Recently he’s overseen the reissue of the Rooster catalogue and associated items on the excellent Angel Air label.
“Sleeping for Years”