Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Humble Pie's "Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore"

Last weekend, when I was checking out some fuzz pedals (thanks, Frank!), my hands were inexorably drawn to the harmonized guitar line from "Four Day Creep," the opening song from Humble Pie's Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore. When I was 17, it was my signature "warming up noise" in the same way that the intro to the Rationals' "Guitar Army" has been for the past five years or so.

If you have any propensity at all for playing air guitar, "I Don't Need No Doctor," the climactic song from that album, will bring it out of you.

8-Track Museum curator Bucks Burnett says it, and I believe it: "Best live album ever."

Rockin' the Fillmore arrived in the fall of '71, as I was starting high school, and soon supplanted Live At Leeds as the album I had to listen to four times a day. (I never had that kind of relationship with Who's Next, which seemed fussy compared to its feral predecessor.)

I drove my father up the wall trying to learn the signature riff from "I Don't Need No Doctor" -- and I didn't even own an electric guitar yet.

My best friend from middle school, whose own tastes had shifted on a dime from Roger Miller and Peter, Paul and Mary to Neil Young and Steppenwolf (and later, on acid, the Doors -- I shudder to think), had looked on in befuddlement when I tried to turn him onto the Yardbirds, MC5, and Stooges. His comment on his first exposure to Humble Pie's tonsil-tearing frontman Steve Marriott (when I played him, if my shaky memory serves, the first Small Faces album): "He sounds like a peanut."

Back in those days, when teenage boys would argue over favorite guitar players the way they argued over favorite cars or baseball players, Marriott was my first favorite singer. (I was too young to appreciate the subtlety and finer songcraft on the early Rod Stewart records, and I thought Robert Plant sounded like an hysterical banshee.) Before that, I only cared about lead guitarists.

True, Humble Pie did have a lead guitarist: Peter Frampton, a prettyboy pop star in the UK when Marriott bolted the Small Faces and invited him to make a band. Frampton was different, less blues-based than most of the axe-slingers of the time. Instead, he played a melodic style that drew from Django Reinhardt (at high volume) at a time when "jazz-rock" meant blaring horn bands or, soon, Mahavishnu. It was the most idiosyncratic style I'd heard since Ritchie Blackmore first scorched my ears when I was 11. I wasn't facile enough to copy it, but it made me listen for different things on the axe, and perhaps was a gateway drug of sorts into other musics.

In due time, Frampton left, and I actually witnessed his performance on his first US solo tour, sandwiched in between Slade and the J. Geils Band. The electric piano broke during his first or second song, and while it was being repaired, he sat on the edge of the stage, talking to the audience. I thought to myself at the time, "This guy is gonna be huge," and indeed, in the fullness of time, he was -- pink hair and all.

Steve Marriott supposedly called their mutual manager, Dee Anthony, out about using the proceeds from Humble Pie's tours to launch Frampton's solo career, and (the story goes) was told to shut up or wind up sleeping with the fishes. After that, the former stage kid (he'd replaced Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! in the West End) slunk back to the UK and reverted to playing the pubs, and wound up dying in a fire in 1991 after falling asleep smoking in bed. Late-period recordings I've heard indicate he could have had an interesting maturity. He deserved a better end.

Back in the day, though, Marriott could roar with the best of 'em: a cockney pipsqueak's overwrought impersonation of a soul singer. He had a freak voice with a vibrato-laden scream that was less controlled but more exciting than Paul Rodgers'. His primitive guitar playing got better as he went, and he penned some great riffs, often grafting them on top of blues and R&B classics like Willie Dixon's "I'm Ready" or Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So." "Stone Cold Fever" is another one I never get tired of playing during breaks in Stoogeaphilia practice.

Humble Pie's real forte, downplayed at Anthony's insistence in favor of the full-tilt boogie, was slow, moody, bluesy pieces like "Live With Me" from their eponymous third album, or "Strange Days" from Rock On (the album they were touring when they taped Rockin' the Fillmore). Two extended examples exist on the live album: an Uber-raunchy version of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone," and most sublime, the Pie's take on Dr. John's "I Walk On Gilded Splinters."

Town and Country was widely reckoned to be the Pie's best record, largely owing to its US rarity (until A&M released it on a twofer with their first album), and Smokin', the album that followed Rockin' the Fillmore, was their biggest success, and contained three of their best songs ever ("Hot 'n' Nasty," Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," and "30 Days in the Hole"). But Rockin' the Fillmore remains their magnum opus, a true artifact of its time that's still able, 40 years on, to get asses out of seats (if the asses in question have any affinity whatsoever with rock 'n' roll, which is hardly a guarantee these days).


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