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.

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“Sleeping for Years”

:D CD Reissue | 2009 | Castle | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1970 | B&C | search ebay ]

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  • dododado

    Another good album, another shitty review.

  • Len Liechti

    Thanx, dododado. Please suggest ways in which the review might have been made less sh*tty?

  • Brendan

    Nothing shitty about your review Len. It’s informative, descriptive and positive. That’s what we do here. dodo can keep up with some other blog that copy/pastes allmusic reviews if he doesn’t like ours.

  • We had this album at home when I was a teenager. It was among LPs my sister’s boyfriend had left at our place. I liked the heaviness of it and the interesting riffs. It was never on the top of the playlist but I liked it enough to give it a fair run. Haven’t heard it since 1975. Thanks for bringing it back and also filling in gaps in the knowledge, Len.

  • Chris

    Nice review. I bought this album based on the funny/scary title, but the cover of my copy is totally different, showing what looks to be an actual atomic rooster. Probably a reissue or import or something. Anyway, by far my favorite track on this is the least heavy one–the jazzy, kind of depressing “No One Else.”

  • Len Liechti

    Can’t explain the different cover art, Chris, but worth noting that “Nobody Else” is actually a bonus track that didn’t appear on the original vinyl, which is why it sounds a bit different.

  • Neil Mincey

    I also had this album with the “rooster” cover. It was the original US release on Elektra records, who also released their next album ” In Hearing of”. Both records were released in America in 1971. I still think fondly of both records. The band was the same on both, with the addition of vocalist Pete French on “In Hearing of”. That album doesn’t seem to be rated as highly by most fans, but I think it’s at least as good… Great ensemble playing on the instrumentals, A Spoonful of Bromide, and The Rock, and a unique vocal from French on the closing track, The Price.

  • Jay

    Passing off others’ blues and folk songs or otherwise pasting together others’ exact riffs and musical ideas as your own is what you consider “creative sophistication”? At least Sabbath wrote their own material. I’m a fan of both but that statement is ludicrous. Pre-apology or not. But then again you guys collect Bread records.

    Interesting site nonetheless. Thanks for the effort.

  • Good review, but Black Sabbath is just great, and actually ,more groundbreaking, because they didn t relay on blues and folk forms. Carl Palmer was in the band, and if my memories serves me well, he plays on their first record.i dont understand you putting down the art cover,as they use a watercolor from William Blake, a grat visionary poet and artist.Great site, thank you.

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