Tastes Just Like...Atomic Rooster

If you’re a fan of early 70s keyboardists, then somewhere between the proto-metal of JON LORD and KEN HENSLEY and the straight prog rock of KEITH EMERON, RICK WAKEMAN, and TONY BANKS is the Cult of Crane. Hell, I’ll go as far as call it the CVLT of Crane, since his stuff is really dark, heavy, culty, and even occulty! I’m not sure if there is anyone in the CVLT of Crane besides me, but it’s a good CVLT to be in, and I hope to indoctrinate more people with this here writing. 

Rock trivia buffs might recognize Vincent Crane as the original keyboardist for the CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN, having played alongside CARL PALMER, or for this brief stint in DEXY'S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS, but he’s also the manic depressive genius behind ATOMIC ROOSTER, his primary musical vehicle.

It’s hard to place Atomic Rooster in any particular musical category, since due to Crane’s obsession with artistic progression, he was replacing members and changing musical direction at a ridiculous pace. As in, Atomic Rooster would record an album, and before the album would even come out, before they’d even started the tour for it, Crane would replace half the band and be thinking of what the next album would sound like. 

In some cases, these changes seemed unnecessary, since the members he’d fire appeared to be perfectly capable of adapting to any new musical ideas Crane threw at them; including the lineup which produced the group’s only two hits, “Tomorrow Night” and the excellent non-album single “Devil’s Answer.” As a result, Atomic Rooster gained virtually no momentum, instead releasing a handful of studio albums, breaking up, briefly getting back together, releasing a couple more studio albums, and then breaking up again; after which Crane sadly took his life in 1989.

The other two members of the classic lineup, guitarist John Du Cann and drummer Paul Hammond, are also playing harps in Heaven, so don’t expect a “proper” Atomic Rooster reunion tour. However, if you don’t mind some later members, such as singer Pete French, who sang on a whopping four Atomic Rooster songs, and guitarist Steve Bolton, who managed to make an entire album with the group (though, neither French nor Bolton were on the same album, mind you), touring with a bunch of other guys as Atomic Rooster -- the way IRON BUTTERFLY still tours with no original members -- then you can probably catch Atomic Rooster at your local rock club, where overweight babyboomers with beards sport XXL t-shirts they purchased from last week’s URIAH HEEP gig. 

Atomic Roooster (1970)

That’s not a typo. The first Atomic Rooster album is called Atomic Roooster with three o’s. I have no idea why, but it probably has something to do with the use of psychedelics. Unlike the actual band name, which was inspired by the deep philosophical musings on the existential nature of [fill in gap]...

After his brief stint in the CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN and a subsequent nervous breakdown, Vincent Crane formed this here new band called Atomic Rooster, and he brought CWOAB drummer Carl Palmer with him. They also hired Nick Graham to play bass and sing, but felt no need to hire a guitar player… at first… 

See, Crane plays riffs on his keyboard. He doesn’t just plink and plunk all over creation while the rest of the members play annoyingly complicated rhythms just because they can. Yes, there are great jammy passages where all three members get to show off; I mean, it is progressive rock, after all, but there is definitely a focus on the rock part of it. These songs have a natural flow to them, so it would be hard to lob the “self-indulgent” criticism at the Atomic Rooster. They’re clearly trying to make songs normal people can like, as opposed to just prog nerds obsessed with complicated 13/8 rhythms and hour-long flute solos.

Not that the album doesn't have flute on it. And Nick Graham plays a fine flute on “Winter”, which beautifully evokes the somber yet calming feeling of watching the snow fall on a Winter afternoon, along with the rockin’ instrumental closing track “Before Tomorrow.” But, ya know, Nick Graham isn’t a self-indulgent flute player, if that makes sense.

Oh, and Atomic Rooster is really depressing. Crane lays bare his entire philosophy on the opening track “Friday the 13th” with such uplifting lyrics as “someone please, please save me/no one will save you – they won’t try/someone please, please help me/everyone’s lonely when they die.” And these themes of darkness, loneliness, and depression persist across the album’s eight tracks, with the obvious exceptions being the groupie bashing “And So to Bed”, the typically horny “I want you, baby” rocker “S.L.Y.”, and, of course, “Before Tomorrow”, which is an instrumental.

Hell, even the cover of JOHN MAYALL’s “Broken Wings” contributes to the overall depressing mood.

But, in spite of such a gloomy world view, the album is quite a groovy piece of proto-prog, right down to the use of freakin’ congas, which really add to the butt-shakin’, hoodoo-voodoo vibe on songs such as “Decline and Fall.” So it sounds like a group of cute late 60s chicks in an underground psychedelic club wiggling around with their wrists bleeding.

Right after the album was recorded, Nick Graham left to join SKIN ALLY and was replaced by this super talented journeyman guitarist named John Du Cann, who played in the ATTACK and ANDROMEDA. While he’s not on the British version of Atomic Roooster, he recorded some noisy, Hendrix-y licks on three songs for the American release of the album. Personally speaking, the addition of guitar doesn’t really add much and just kinda seem like an afterthought, but it was a harbinger of what was to come.

Death Walks Behind You (1970)

With new drummer Paul Hammond taking the place of Carl Palmer, John Du Cann joining on guitar and vocals, and Vincent Crane not hiring a new bass player, instead opting to play all the bass parts himself, Atomic Rooster is like an entirely new band.

It’s kind of a weird setup too, since John Du Cann would be the only member of the band standing up during performances.

But, hawt damn, what an excellent, criminally underrated album! The addition of guitarist John Du Cann has definitely moved Atomic Rooster in the heavy direction, but I’m surprised Death Walks Behind You is considered “heavy prog.” It’s no more prog than DEEP PURPLE or URIAH HEEP. No, the album is heavy rock and proto metal; John Du Cann supplies the killer, Iommi-tier blues metal riffs, and Vincent Crane’s Hammond organ provides a foil for those riffs.

The tone for the record is set with the Nebuchadnezzar painting on the front and the eight-minute-long opening title cut and its creepy intro with descending piano minor notes and high pitch guitar shrieks before the thundering riff comes in and Du Cann sings about death being around every corner. And it’s interesting to note how the song “Death Walks Behind You” is neither about a demonic figure coming after the protagonist like the one in “Black Sabbath”, nor is it about nuclear war like in SABBATH's “Electric Funeral”, nor is it even about the personal, incidental horror of being in a plane crash like in “D.O.A.” by BLOODROCK, but about pure neurosis and the paralyzing fear of something intangible.

I supposed you can say GRAND FUNK RAILROAD covered a similar topic with their song “Paranoid”; however, even they managed to simply slap a name onto it. After all, what if it’s not paranoia and they really are out to get you? Given Crane’s manic depressive nature, I reckon the song is a lot more personal, and wasn’t inspired by something he just read in a newspaper or saw in a movie.

But the rest of the album doesn’t really attempt to be scary; it’s just heavy and rocks. That’s not to say that the lyrics aren’t plenty negative. In fact, there aren’t any songs on Death Walks Behind You with positive or uplifting lyrics.

Well, “VUG” and “Gershatzer” are instrumentals, so they don’t have any lyrics. And yes, I admit that these two instrumental workouts are kinda proggy. But they’re certainly not full-on prog rock. Sure, Paul Hammond plays a couple of drum solos, but he never does a whole bunch of crazy time changes like he’s BILL BRUFORD or something; and none of the songs are longer than eight minutes, nor did Atomic Rooster ever do multi-part medleys. 

Elsewhere you've got the catchy-as-hell hit single with a shuffle beat “Tomorrow Night”, the slow and somber “Nobody Else”, and just a few flat-out heavy rock slammers; one of which is “Seven Lonely Streets”, which John Du Cann kidnapped from his previous band ANDROMEDA and had Vincent Crane spruce up with some funeral organ, and another is “Sleeping for Years”, which is way too energetic to be called “Sleeping for Years.” I thought the song was about someone in a coma, which is pretty darn depressing, but then I read the lyrics, and I honestly have no idea what it’s about, other than it sounds pretty pessimistic. But when a song rocks out like that, do you really care what it’s about?

Regardless of how great the album is, the fact that it’s gone down as a minor proto-metal/heavy rock classic with a growing cult following, and that Atomic Rooster scored another hit with a great song called “Devil’s Answer” shortly after Death Walks Behind You came out, Vincent Crane went ahead and snatched defeat from the proverbial ol’ jaws of victoriosity.

In Hearing of Atomic Rooster (1971)

After Atomic Rooster recorded their third album and just when it looked like the group was getting somewhere, Vincent Crane fired John Du Cann and Paul Hammond, hired a singer named Pete French from the band LEAF HOUND to recorded new vocal tracks, cut out several of Du Cann’s guitar tracks, and replaced John Du Cann and Paul Hammond with guitarist Steve Bolton and drummer Ric Parnell.

On the bright side, John Du Cann and Paul Hammond started their own band HARD STUFF.

But, regardless of the fact that In Hearing of Atomic Rooster is somewhat of a patchwork affair and that the band that recorded the album is not the same one fans – what few of them there were – got to see live on the 1971 tour, I still enjoy the album quite a bit. The obvious difference between In Hearing of Atomic Rooster and its predecessor is the lack of heavy guitars on most tracks. The other one is just more of an abundance of funky grooves. Hell, the last song “The Price” is a funk-rock song about SELLING YOUR SOUL TO THE DEVIL.

The one thing that won’t really surprise people very much is new singer Pete French. He might sound a tad more bluesy than Nick Graham or John Du Cann, but as of yet, all three of Atomic Rooster’s vocalists pretty much just sound like 70s hard rock vocalists; you know, kinda like PAUL RODGERS or MARK FARNER. Though, Crane actually sings on a couple of these songs as well. 

But, it’s obvious that Vincent Crane definitely wanted to emphasize his instrument  - or, rather, instruments, since he often switches between keyboards, synthesizer, and acoustic piano in the same song - over John Du Cann’s, as opening track “Breakthrough” and the slow ‘n’ slinky “Black Snake” barely have any audible guitar on them at all, and when you actually can hear Du Cann’s guitar, such as on the second track “Break the Ice” and the instrumental workouts “A Spoonful of Bromide” and “The Rock”, it’s certainly not as heavy or as prominent as it was on the previous album. And it’s entirely absent from the ballad “Decision/Indecision.”

But, oh, the songs!!! That’s what makes Atomic Rooster great and helps them escape the trappings of other prog bands. To use a cliché, Crane knows when to play and when not to play. His instrument is still primarily a rhythm instrument, and Atomic Rooster is a song band. Just listen to the opening track “Breakthrough”, and you’ll see what I mean. Crane plunks away on the piano as Pete French sings about being in an invisible prison and needing to make a breakthrough. Then Crane switches to this counter melody on the keyboard for the bridge part, and it’s rhythmic and catchy, almost like something Kraftwork would do; but funkier and more rockin’. 

On the other hand, if you are in it for the rock, and I mean, the hard rock, that is, the rock with the hard ‘n’ heavy distorted guitars, then Vincent Crane finally throws you and John Du Cann a bone with the all-out, balls-out, rock-out-with-your-cock-out head banger “Head in the Sky.” You’ll be thinking, "WHY DIDN’T THEY MAKE THE REST OF THE ALBUM LIKE THIS??!!" To be fair, the second track “Break the Ice” comes close. But “Head in the Sky” is the only full-on rocker on the album. And ya know what? Vincent Crane still plays some killer organ on that too. So there’s no reason he had to cut so many damn guitar tracks from the album.

Sadly, I doubt there’s an In Hearing of Atomic Rooster Redux out there with all of John Du Cann’s guitar tracks. Though, by virtue of how much posthumous Atomic Rooster product exists, you would think there would be.

Made in England (1972)

Pete French done gone and joined CACTUS, and Atomic Rooster are now breaking in their fourth singer Chris Farlowe, who is, of course, another white guy from England, but does his damnedest to try to sound like an overweight black woman singing in a Louisiana church choir, or Aretha Franklin.

The fourth Atomic Rooster album may be called Made in England, but it sounds more like it was made in Memphis or Detroit and released on Westbound…

Atomic Rooster has gone full on soul funk with danceable grooves, horns, bongo drums, female backup vocals, and those awesome wicky-wicky-wah-wah guitars you hear in 70s porno flicks; in addition, of course, to Crane’s standard arsenal of keyboards, synthesizers, and pianos. But the album has its harder and heavier moments, which undoubtedly will evoke comparisons to FUNKADELIC. Which makes John Du Cann’s and Paul Hammond’s sacking seem even more unnecessary, since Made in England is even more of a guitar album than its predecessor!

In fact, Crane allows guitarist Steve Bolton to write two of the ten songs, and, wouldn't ya know it, neither of them sound much like the rest of the album. “Never to Lose” is an okay ballad, which I guess is kinda soulful. But “Space Cowboy” is this crazy country-western space rock song which starts with some honky-tonk piano and acoustic guitars, and then there’s a galloping beat and some guy shouting “YEE-HAH!!” before the song turns into hard rock with space noises and guitar solos; like countrified Hawkwind or something. It’s pretty cool, but totally incongruous with the rest of the album. While “All in Satan’s Name” is like a funkier version of something from Death Walks Behind You, and “Breathless” is the obligatory instrumental. Also drummer Ric Parnell wrote and sang one song, but I don’t feel like talking about that one.

Not being too familiar with a lot of soul or funk music, I really enjoy Made in England, because the musicianship and songwriting are still great. But, if you’re not used to the inspirational, gospel-influenced sounds of Memphis soul, you’re gonna really be like, what the hell is this when you hear the songs “Stand by Me” and “Close Your Eyes”! I’m not even joking, unless my ears are stupid, the casual listener would likely not think these songs were done by some British progressive rock group called Atomic Rooster; kinda like how people thought QUEEN was a black R&B band when they heard “Another One Bites the Dust” for the first time.

And, while, Crane’s existential musings on how much life sucks seem a little awkward on opening track “Time Take My Life”, Chris Farlowe sings about more down-to-earth, genre-appropriate topics on “Don’t Know What Went Wrong” and “People You Can’t Trust.” Not that funk groups can't sing existential musings about how much life sucks; I’m just not aware of any that do.

But, ya know what’s a total trip that made my freakin’ head explode? I did some Wiki searching to see what careers Chris Farlowe, Steve Bolton, and Ric Parnell had outside the Rooster, and I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that Ric Parnell was actually Mick Shrimpton in Spinal Tap!!!

Nice ‘n’ Greasy (1973)

Before reading on, google the album cover for the German version of Nice ‘n’ Greasy. If you thought the cover of Bloodrock USA was amazing, wait until you see the “rocket dicks” concept on this one!

Chris Farlowe maintains his position as lead singer of Atomic "Funk Soul" Rooster, but Steve Bolton has been replaced with future BRAND X guitarist John Goodsall (why not John GoodSOUL?). And in a strange twist, for the first time ever, Vincent Crane and his band recorded an album that actually sounds kinda like the last one! Now, I’m not the kind of person who feels a band needs to just make the same album over and over again, but I think there’s a difference between a natural progression, where you add things to your music as you absorb different influences, and when you just change your sound from one album to the next.

Which makes it even more strange is that Atomic Rooster rerecorded “Friday the 13th” as “Save Me”, keeping the original’s dark, ominous tone but converting it into FUNK. I read one negative review of Nice ‘n’ Greasy on Amazon that said, “Chris Farlowe singing songs about Satan? Gimme a break.” Okay, guy, there’s only one song about Satan on the album, and it doesn’t really sound all that ridiculous. However, regarding “Save Me”, hearing a band doing dark, SABBATH-tier subject matter with big gospel vocals, wicky-wah-wah guitars, and horns (!!!) is certainly unusual, to say the least; especially when the horns double the line where he goes “someone, please save me/nobody will save you – they won’t try.”

I will say, though, that I prefer this to the corny-as-hell and beyond-overrated “scary” funk of “Welcome to My Nightmare”, even if I am a huge ALICE COOPER fan.

One big difference between Made in England and Nice ‘n’ Greasy is the heavier blues influence on the latter, which obviously is because of John Goodsall, who is primarily a blues guitarist. In fact, three of these songs, opening cut “All Across the Country”, the overly long cover of Johnny Jenkins’ “Voodoo in You”, and the obligatory instrumental “Ear in the Snow”, are more blues than soul or funk. As a result of this heavier blues influence and a lack of female backing vocals, Nice ‘n’ Greasy sounds closer to the funk rock of, say, DEEP PURPLE’s Stormbringer than a tribute to Stax records that was the previous album. And there’s even a pretty and emotionally evocative piano ballad called “Can’t Find a Reason” for people who like that sort of thing.

Nice ‘n’ Greasy is for the most part a pretty entertaining listen, and it’s surprising how much record labels let bands get away with in their artistic pursuits before eventually dropping them. But it was a dead end. And, barring a few concert dates, lineup changes, and the release of a single, Atomic Rooster took a hike… for now!

Choking the chicken one more time?

Atomic Rooster (1980)

A reunion album!!! Vincent Crane and John Du Cann have apparently patched up any differences they might have had and put 2/3 of the classic Death Walks Behind You lineup back together. Paul Hammond would have joined, but I guess he wasn’t available, so they got prolific session drummer Preston Heyman in his place. For the record, I’m just as much a part of the Cult of Cann as I am the Cult of Crane. John Du Cann is a terrific journeyman guitarist. He slung ax and sang for the ATTACK, ANDROMEDA, HARD STUFF, his own solo album The World’s Not Big Enough, and even a Lee Cooper clothing ad jingle called “Don’t Be a Dummy”; Vincent Crane is just another musician he happened to cross paths with, and as a result, helped deliver the definitive Atomic Rooster album, Death Walks Behind Us

And, due to the fact that John Du Cann wrote every song on Atomic Rooster, albeit with a few co-writes from Vincent Crane, along with singing again and dominating the mix with his guitar, I think it’s safe to call Atomic Rooster a John Du Cann album on which Vincent Crane plays keyboards; which is only fair, considering how Crane removed so many of Du Cann’s tracks on In Hearing of Atomic Rooster. The only issue is that John Du Cann is singing in this weird, punky Brian Eno-ish voice that he adopted on his solo album, and I wish he would have reverted back to his more traditional-sounding 70s rock voice, as it’s more fitting for this type of music.

Also, I don’t think I need to say it, but for those who aren’t entirely sure, the funk and soul influences are gone. Atomic Rooster is, by and large, a hard rock album which swings towards heavy metal, while also incorporating a bit of punk and pop into the mix. Songs like the slow and creepy “In the Shadows” and the straight-forward hard rocker with cowbell “Don’t Lose Your Mind” could easily fit on Death Walks Behind You. Opening cut “They Took Control of You”, which has an opening riff that’s totally reminiscent of “Neon Knights” by SABBATH, the galloping metal anthem “Do You Know Who’s Looking for You?”, and the speed metal instrumental “Watch Out” are the group’s token entries into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

And, personally, while I would have preferred an entire album of songs that sound like JUDAS PRIEST or SAXON with keyboards, I wouldn’t get to hear the BO DIDDLY jungle rhythm on “She’s My Woman”, the cute and catchy descending keyboard line on the pop song “He Did It Again”, or the super fun and fit-to-pogo punk rock of “Where’s the Show?”, the one song which actually benefits from Du Cann’s new punky singing style. However, the casual listener might be disappointed to learn that the final song “Lost in Space” does not have science fiction lyrics about being lost in the cosmos, but is in fact a melancholy number about losing hope and purpose after a breakup.

Thankfully, the CD reissue contains a catchy and uplifting bonus track called “Throw Your Life Away.” Considering the tune’s anti-drug message, Atomic Rooster might have benefited from sticking the world “don’t” at the beginning of the song title, just in case any fans got confused about the message the band was sending.

Headline News (1983)

The big interest surrounding this here final Atomic Rooster LP called Headline News is that DAVID GILMOUR plays on it. I guess if you’re a hardcore Ian Gillan fan, it might also interest you that Bernie Tormé plays on it as well; which is somewhat of an odd coincidence that two members of the IAN GILLAN BAND played with Atomic Rooster at different times.

But, before we go on, let’s have a brief rewind…

GINGER BAKER actually joined Atomic Rooster for two weeks after Preston Heyman left and before Paul Hammond came back. Man, can you imagine what Atomic Rooster with Ginger Baker would have sounded like? I mean, if Levitation by HAWKWIND is any indication, probably pretty darn awesome! Instead the classic lineup, albeit with GILLAN bassist John McCoy foisted upon them by their record label, squeezed out a couple of really great metal singles, which sadly failed to attract much attention, and shortly after, the label dropped the band, and John Du Cann quit.

But, whatever reaction Atomic Rooster’s soul funk stuff received a decade prior, Headline News, with its prog meets icy Gary Numan/Duran Duran/Ultravox new wave synth pop got it way worse. It’s a shame, since Headline News is a damn fine album, and there are a handful of songs which sound like the older, heavier, more rockin’ Atomic Rooster. But most of the songs on Headline News definitely seem as though they’re trying to appeal to pale, sharply dressed dudes with conservative haircuts acting like they’re in a 1940s film noir.

Vincent Crane wrote every song, focusing on keyboards and synths rather than guitars, and sings in that lightweight British goth/new wave/new romantic style that’s the virtual antithesis of all things ROCK. Also Paul Hammond plays electronic drums on much of the album. And, yeah, the band at this point was reduced to just Crane and Hammond, with David Gilmour, Bernie Tormé, and John Mizarolli taking turns contributing guitar parts. Except on the goth synth track “Dance of Death”, which has no guitar on it at all.

Gilmour adds Floydian guitar flourishes to the opening track “Hold Your Fire”, which is full of the kinds of robotic synthesizers you’d hear in an 80s science fiction flick and about the most artificial bass tone you’ve ever heard in your life; along with the appropriately titled and equally robotic “Metal Minds” and the airy and lightweight pop song “Time.”

On the other hand, given his work with Gillan, Tormé’s tunes “Machine”, “Carnival”, and “Watch Out/Reaching Out” are the heavier and more rockin’ ones and would sound like classic Atomic Rooster if not for the synthetic new wave-y production and Crane’s new wave singing style; also “Machine” has some chicks singing “you are a machine” at the beginning, and I wonder if this song, if not, the entire Headline News album influenced some of the sounds and themes on the 1984 QUEEN album The Works, especially on the tune “Machines (or Back to Humans).”

Gilmour and Tormé both play on the dance-pop shoulda-been-an-80s-club-hit “Land of Freedom”, which has some pretty “ah-ah” female backup vocals. And John Mizarolli gets the rest; the apocalyptic new wave title track, the cheery and optimistic pop rock song “Taking a Chance”, and the pretty darn rockin’ “Future Shock.”

In a perfect world, a couple of these songs would either have been club hits or played on MTV. But they weren’t, and, well, that was that. No QUEEN-style rock-to-pop crossover popularity was to be had. Atomic Rooster played a handful of dates before fizzling out again, albeit with later talks of another reunion with Du Cann before Crane took his own life, and the group was relegated to a footnote in rock history, albeit a really REALLY awesome one! 

Edwin Oslan
Revenge of Riff Raff
3rd February, 2021
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