Hilton Valentine

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This is bringing me right down.

Now it’s getting out of control, every week seems to bring the passing of a rock star of yore, some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of.

Leslie West. I bought the first Mountain album, which was really a Leslie West solo LP. Yes, I knew he was in the Vagrants, but I never heard any of their music. This was when you read about records and had to buy them to hear them, but you couldn’t buy all of them. Not that I’m exactly sure what made me buy the first Mountain album, maybe I heard it at a friend’s house, because I certainly never heard it on the radio. 

It was on Windfall Records. Distributed by Bell Records. Let’s see, Bell was a powerhouse of rock and roll, famous for releasing Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” and Climax’s “Precious and Few.” No, not the Climax Blues Band, and if you wanted the really heavy stuff on Bell you listened to Tony Orlando and Dawn. Bell was a singles label. And either it got on the airwaves or it disappeared. What room was there for Leslie West? Essentially none. Especially in an era where all the good stuff came out on Warner Brothers and Columbia.

Upon Leslie’s death I was stunned to find out about the reputation of “Long Red,” how many times it was sampled. Actually, my favorite song on the LP was “Baby, I’m Down,” and “Storyteller Man” was great, as was the finale, “Because You Are My Friend.” This was before anybody knew who Leslie was, so he could be both noisy and soft, bombastic and sensitive, all on the same album. And I played that album over and over, it was fun to be into something only you knew about. 

So I had to go see Mountain at the Fillmore East. The headliner was the Steve Miller Band, supporting their new album “Your Saving Grace,” which I did not purchase. I love the title track, but at that point, I was off the Steve Miller bandwagon, ultimately “Number 5” was worse. Then people stopped buying Steve’s albums, I saw “Rock Love” in the bins, just like the ridiculously titled follow-up, “Recall the Beginning…A Journey from Eden,” but no one I knew owned them. And then, out of the blue, Miller had a monster hit with “The Joker” and he was everywhere. My favorite album was always the third, “Brave New World.” Sure, it’s got “Space Cowboy,” but it also had “Kow Kow” and “Seasons” and Paul McCartney on “My Dark Hour.” I still play “Brave New World” today, even though diehards believe it was already over by then. You see Boz Scaggs was already gone, to purists it was about “Sailor,” with the indelible “Quicksilver Girl,” which too many people still don’t know, and preferably the debut, when the band was supposedly still pure.

I’ll tell you, Miller delivered, but he was just a bonus, I wanted to see Mountain. And by this time, there was a band. With Felix Pappalardi and Corky Laing and Leslie sang like he meant it, there was incredible power, this was an offshoot of Hendrix and what had come before, today’s heavy music is sans melody, but not Leslie West, not Mountain. Mind you, this was months before the second album, “Climbing!,” came out in March. “Mississippi Queen” was an immediate success. In bedrooms and basements. You never heard it on AM radio. But by this point, if you lived in Fairfield, Connecticut, you were listening to FM, New York was only fifty miles away.

I remember being stoned listening to “Climbing!” in the basement of someone I did not really know and feeling that the album was passé, it was already June, there was new stuff. And I’d heard enough of “Mississippi Queen” within weeks of release. Actually, my favorite cut on the album was “Silver Paper.” And I knew “Theme for an Imaginary Western” from Jack Bruce’s solo and “For Yasgur’s Farm” was one of the Woodstock songs, but ultimately Mountain was not in the Woodstock movie, a decision made by management, when you used to say no instead of yes, and West carried this chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life. If only…

And then Mountain got heavier and heavier, more bombastic, and when that avenue ran out of steam there was a supergroup with drummer Laing and Jack Bruce and that was the height of bombasticity and corporate rock came in and then disco and Leslie West was a gunslinger with no saloon within which to show his chops. MTV was about synths. A few hotshots survived, but only a few, like Eric Clapton…even Jeff Beck was struggling for attention. Music is funny. Have enough hits and you can trade on them forever, playing them to smaller and smaller audiences. But people come to hear the hits, you’re a prisoner of your past.

But now that past is receding further and further, to the point where unless you’re the Beatles or the Stones, your work from the sixties may be fading away, and the seventies and eighties too. At least in the sixties there were all these big AM hits. But the seventies were about FM staples, so there were a lot of acts that got airplay but were not known by absolutely everybody so their paint has faded so much as to almost be unknowable.

Then there’s Gerry Marsden. His band had gigantic hits. But it seems no young ‘un knows them, they’ll never get chills when they finally see the Mersey and have the words of his song play in their heads. And you’d think in this era where pop rules, someone could have a huge hit with a cover of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'”…then again, that can’t happen until the chart migrates from beats back to melody.

As for Sylvan Sylvain… He had the privilege of being in a cult band. With cult fans. The Ramones never had a hit, and now you see their t-shirts on babies. The Dolls have lived on because they pushed the envelope, so you saw a lot of ink about Sylvain’s death, but most people had no idea who he was, never mind his music.

Tim Bogert? A monster supporting player in no bands that were iconic hitmakers. Sure, Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” was the precursor to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” an extended number for stoners, but there was never a hit single version, unlike the Iron Butterfly number. I saw Cactus multiple times, I can’t say they deserved to break through, and they didn’t. As for Bogert’s work with Jeff Beck… Finally his moniker was in the headline, in the name of the group, but Stevie Wonder had the hit version of “Superstition.” So, if you knew Bogert, you felt his loss. But he was never the member of a sexy band so he got a hell of a lot less ink than Sylvain Sylvain.

And now Hilton Valentine.

Quick! Name the guitarist in the Animals!

Very few can do so. Their hits were 55 years ago, over half a century. To give you some perspective… That would be like kids in the sixties, the Animals’ heyday, knowing the hits of 1910, which they most certainly didn’t.

Now the Animals were hobbled by being on MGM Records, which was never cool. We knew that back then, we saw the labels on the 45s, we knew the orange and yellow of Capitol, the red of Columbia…MGM was a lame label, without the infrastructure of its big time competitors.

But the Animals were giants.

It was the summer of ’64. The summer of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The British Invasion was in full swing, our minds had expanded to encompass the work of seemingly everything from the U.K., assuming it was good. And the Animals were.

At that point most people had no idea “House of the Rising Sun” was a Dave Van Ronk staple, never mind being on Bob Dylan’s first LP, it was the rock sound that put the Animals’ version over the top. Of course you had Eric Burdon’s vocal, but there is not a boomer alive, that’s how ubiquitous hit songs were back then, who doesn’t know the opening guitar lick to “House of the Rising Sun.” That lick was played by Hilton Valentine.

Now the original incarnation of the Animals only lasted until 1966. Sure, their hit-making era was only three years, from ’64-’66, but they’d paid dues before that, beginning in ’62, in Newcastle upon Tyne, an industrial area without the hipness of Liverpool, never mind London. The Animals had a dark name and they were perceived as dark. But they had a slew of hits.

Sure, “House of the Rising Sun” was a breakthrough, and went to #1, but “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which only went to #13 in the U.S., was a bigger song, probably better remembered. Barry Mann and Cynthia Well wrote it, but the Animals made it their own, and it did not have the legacy of a standard, it was fresh, brand new.

As for “It’s My Life”…

Eric Burdon was gonna ride that serpent, he was gonna break loose, because..

“It’s my life and I’ll do what I want

It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want”

This was the ethos of the sixties, it’s not the ethos of today. Our parents were not fighting us for attention, there was no question of them being our best friends, we were throwing off the chains of society, of expectations, we were gonna forge our own path.

It’s a great song, Burdon delivers it, but never underestimate the importance of Hilton Valentine’s twelve string guitar.

And the Animals had other hits, but “Don’t Bring Me Down” is my favorite. 

“When you complain and criticize

I feel I’m nothing in your eyes

It makes me feel like giving up

Because my best just ain’t good enough”

The hormones had awoken. Puberty was in full swing. What you wanted was too often unattainable. You had crushes. But to them you barely existed, if at all. But to you, they were everything. The only thing you had to soothe yourself was this music.

“Oh, oh no

Don’t bring me down”

Give me a chance. I’ll show you, you’ll see, I’ll have this music playing in the back of my mind, I’ll be emboldened, I’ll be undeniable.

Now in the case of “Don’t Bring Me Down” one cannot underestimate the importance of Dave Rowberry’s organ, and Eric Burdon sings with nuance, something absent from too much of today’s music, and it’s a great Gerry Goffin/Carole King song, but what truly makes “Don’t Bring Me Down” a hit is Hilton Valentine’s fuzz guitar. It’s a bedrock element of rock history. And you probably had no idea who Hilton Valentine was. He’s that guy!

They no longer die before their time, they don’t O.D., their bodies give out and they’re gone, and there are so many of them these days that their deaths are less shocking and get less attention, after all, nobody lives forever.

But if you lived through the era… These people were everything. They took over from sports stars. They broke new ground. And we followed them. The Beatles were not the only pied pipers.

Now the truth is we’re next. These musicians are a decade older than so many of us. But the Grim Reaper is coming for us, we’re next on the chopping block. Everything that was so important, everything that we lived for, is fading away, probably never to return. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

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