“We bring the energy and the drama every night”: The band that stormed the charts in 1967 with a heavy rock cover of one of the least likely choices ever is back—doing songs from ’67 in its signature heavy rock style.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
Few bands could match the heaviness of Vanilla Fudge’s interpretation of “You Keep Me Hanging On,” when it hit the airwaves in 1967. A three-minute edit of the song became a Top 10 hit, but the seven-minute version on the band’s self-titled album offers the truly visceral experience. A gonzo E-chord rush of heavy guitar licks, cymbal washes and that ubiquitous Hammond organ would be enough of an intro on its own, but the band goes through two more patterns before they even get to the song. And when organist Mark Stein finally hits the opening line, the song is noticeably slower and more dramatic than the danceable one which the Supremes had released a year earlier. While overindulgence would begin creeping into rock and roll music within a few years, the clean cut guys on the album’s liner photos never let the song get excessive.
It sounds debatable, but Vanilla Fudge created seismic waves that would impact the future of hard rock. English blokes Jon Lord and Richie Blackmore copped the band’s Bolero-from-Marshall-stack approach when they formed Deep Purple. When an ex-Yardbirds guitarist brought his new band to the States, the Fudge had Led Zeppelin open for them. (Incidentally, by the fifth and final album of the Fudge’s first run, the clean cut look had given way to a band with long hair that made early Zeppelin look tame.)
Like many ’60s acts, Vanilla Fudge has reappeared over the years in various lineups of original and newer members. But currently they won’t be mistaken for a ghost group cashing in on nostalgia. Stumbling across a video of their 2011 appearance on The Jimmy Fallon Show, I was impressed to hear them pound out their signature hit as if 1967 never ended. Original members Stein (still working a massive Hammond), drummer Carmine Appice and guitarist Vince Martell have continued on with Pete Bremy ably filling the role of bassist Tim Bogert.
In early March the band released Spirit of 1967, a set of songs from the title year, reworked Vanilla Fudge style. Like the early days, they take liberties with “Break on Through,” “I Can See For Miles” and “I’m a Believer,” the latter featuring a solid groove that gives the Monkees/Neil Diamond song an extra kick. Aside from a questionable rap in opening funky take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” the band hasn’t lost their touch.
In addition to performing, Stein also penned You Keep Me Hanging On; The Raging Story of Rock Music’s Golden Age, a 2011 memoir, written with Larry Schweikart, a historian known for his book A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’ Discovery to America’s Age of Entitlement. Though he might be known better in more conservative political circles, Stein says his co-author was in the audience in Phoenix, Arizona when the Fudge opened for Jimi Hendrix.
Stein spoke with Blurt by phone on the eve of the new album’s release, discussing past and present, including the new album, the story behind their creepy take on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and — a totally good sport — one more explanation of the sophomore album that almost zapped them.
BLURT: How does the volume at your current shows compare to the early days?
STEIN: Well, it’s a power band. We’re a powerful band, a lot of drama, a lot of dynamics. Carmine’s always had a huge drum sound. I’ve always had my keyboard sound with the Hammond, and synthesizers now. It’s always pretty full. Vinnie loves to crank it up. We are a loud band. But the good news is our dynamics make it a little more fun. We come down in volume a lot too, and bring out the drama in our arrangements.
When I saw the appearance you did on the Jimmy Fallon Show (from 2011), I was impressed that you use the Hammond B3 rather than a smaller keyboard that can recreate it.
It’s like my security blanket. But with the original B3 I throw my body into it. I grab it and I swing it and I play. There are only a few of us left who do it. The good news is, it’s part of the backline so it’s not like the crew has to actually bring it, like you’re bringing a guitar or a bass. I mean the bloody thing is like, what 450 pounds?
When you started, what did audiences think of what you were doing?
We started putting these production arrangements together, these sonic arrangements. At the time, audiences came to dance. And they couldn’t dance to us. So they just started watching, and coming closer to the stage. They were sitting and standing there and just watching and getting into the show.
We actually got thrown out of a couple of clubs in the Village. A place called the Eighth Wonder in Greenwich Village and some other places up on the East Coast. The owner called our manager and said, “Look, people can’t dance to these guys. We don’t want them back.”
But it didn’t discourage you.
No, we were young at it was us against the world. We were just hellbent on making our sound acceptable. That’s what we did.
How much of an influence were the Young Rascals when you started out?
Huge. I was playing in a Top 40 band called Rick Martin and Showmen when I was about 18 years old. We were doing a lot of club dates in New York City and up and down the East Coast. I heard about this band the Young Rascals that were packing him and getting this huge buzz. This was around 1966. So I went to the city and went to see them at a place called the Phone Booth. It was a discotheque, not a disco. This was before that, [these were the] ones where they had the dancers in the boxes, shaking their butts and all that good stuff.
The first time I saw the Young Rascals I was blown away. Felix Cavaliere was this monster behind a Hammond organ. It was the first time I saw a Hammond organ in a rock band. The guy was singing and playing foot pedals. It was this thick, amazing, wide sound. His voice was killing it. The whole concept — blue eyed soul, power rock that they had going.
I went to see them a couple times and that was it. I told my father. I was playing a cheap portable organ. I said, “Dad, I gotta get this thing called a Hammond B3. I just have to get one.” My dad was a hard working guy and he went over the top and got one for me. Of course I paid him back later on. The Rascals had an immense effect on us, vocally and of course from the Hammond perspective.
Actually it was the Vagrants [with guitarist Leslie West, pre-Mountain] that were my second inspiration. The first time I saw the Vagrants, I was so blown away with the way they were taking songs and making productions out of them. That’s what really inspired me to start getting into arranging. It was really the combination of the Rascals’ blue eyed soul and all that stuff combined with the dramatics that the Vagrants were doing. Put those two together and you’ve got Vanilla Fudge. Just took it to the next level.
It was a pretty fertile time, with the way music was evolving.
It was amazing. Things started happening so fast. We didn’t know what hit us. We had this huge album on our hands. All of a sudden, we’re playing with the Mamas and the Papas, going to England, we’re playing with the Who, playing with Traffic. I was just fan of all these things and here I am in the middle of the pop music universe, you know. It was pretty wild.
How old were you?
I was 20.
When you made the first record, who called the shots? [Producer] Shadow Morton? You guys?
The first album primarily was what we played in the clubs. What we played was our arrangements. Shadow didn’t arrange anything. He was more like a spiritual advisor, to be honest. He was the perfect vibe for this band at that time, with that first album.
So we went into a place called Mirror Sound, which was in the basement of a hotel in New York City. “You Keep Me Hanging On” was the first thing we did. It was in one take. And it was in mono. (Laughs) The classic thing that went on for half a century was just one take. I remember going into the control room and Joey Veneri – I remember his name, he was the engineer – and Shadow were just beaming. They kept listening to the playback. It was just the instrumental track before we put the vocals on. It was just like a symphony. Everybody knew we had something really special.
Then you were working on what would become Renaissance and Shadow approached you with the concept for The Beat Goes On, right?
This is the deal. We hate talking about this but we have to because it’s this huge skeleton in Vanilla Fudge’s closet, The Beat Goes On. It’s probably the biggest business blunder in the history of classic rock. Here, we have a huge album and it opened up this fantastic new market for bands all over the world. Everybody is talking about Vanilla Fudge. Then Shadow had this idea to do this album called The Beat Goes On; a chronological musical history for two centuries, how music evolved. I don’t know. We were like lambs being led to the slaughter, to be quite honest.
I just did an interview on Sirius Radio last week with Carmine. It was the first thing they brought up. [They asked] how in the hell did these marketing people allow this to happen when you got off to this incredible start? In retrospect I look back and I say, it was ridiculous. Why Shadow wanted it to happen, and Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic – they thought it was going to be big. But we knew it was over the minute it came out. It was an embarrassing situation. If we wanted to do a concept album, we should’ve done it three or four albums down the line. Keep developing the market. All we had to do was a second album with the same approach; we would’ve been right up there with the Cream, with the bands of that era that got off to a flying start. Anyway, then we came back with an album called Renaissance where we started writing songs. We had to come back to get something happen.
Speaking of the Renaissance album, “Season of the Witch” scared the hell out of me when I first heard it.
I’ve always wondered about it. I know the spoken middle part is from an Essra Mohawk song, but is there a back story? [NOTE: Between verses, one member of the band whispers, “Help me,” in a desperate voice. It ends with the scream, “God – if you can’t help us you better listen. Please?!”]
It was from the first album’s sessions. There wasn’t any room on the first album to put it. Basically, it was the same approach that we did [on the rest of the first album]. I heard Donovan’s version and the lyrics. We wanted to make it sound eerie and haunting. It’s about witches, that whole vibe. We slowed it down to this funeral dirge, dramatic type of thing. We kind of looked at it like a play. That thing that Shadow did, that oration, was pretty special.
Yeah, that’s Shadow Morton. He sounds like Richard Burton or something. That’s one of my favorite Fudge arrangements, even today.
When the band broke up, do you feel like you reached a limit or was it a personality thing?
It did reach a limit. We got burned out. At one point, it became a one trick pony. The creative inspiration started to wane. We weren’t really developed as songwriters yet. After touring with the Cream, with Ginger Baker and the late Jack Bruce —God rest his soul — Carmine and Timmy started getting into solos. They wanted to do different stuff, and me and Vinnie wanted to continue doing what we were doing. The strain just basically broke us apart.
So they went on to do their thing with Jeff Beck [Beck, Bogert & Appice] and Cactus. Then Vinnie and I disbanded and I formed a band called Boomerang which was kind of like a Whitesnake/Deep Purple English rock band.
When did you tour with Alice Cooper?
I toured with Alice Cooper in 1977 on the Welcome to my Nightmare tour in the southern hemisphere. That was in Australia and New Zealand. What was cool about that was, at the time, Carmine was playing with Rod Stewart. So he was down in Australia. That was the biggest box office tour at the time, the late ’70s, the Rod Stewart tour with Carmine playing drums with him. And when the Welcome to My Nightmare show followed, then that tour broke all those records.
But before that, I played with Tommy Bolin after he replaced Richie Blackmore in Deep Purple. He left Deep Purple and got a new record deal and formed a new band. I joined forces with Tommy in ’75. It was a really hot jazz rock fusion band with Narada Michael Walden, an amazing drummer, in the first configuration. Reggie McBride, the funky bass player from Stevie Wonder’s band, me on keyboards and vocals, and Norma Jean Bell, a sax player and vocalist.
It was a really cool band. A lot of fusion people came to see us. It didn’t last long. Tommy had his demons that he couldn’t overcome, unfortunately. He left this world at 25 [in 1976]. He would’ve been one of the great greats today, I’m sure of it.
So Vanilla Fudge has had a few reunions over the years.
We did a reunion album called Mystery around 1982. [NOTE: The album was released in 1984.] Spencer Proffer was producing the project, which we were really excited about. He was also producing Quiet Riot in another studio, before anybody knew about them. So there was a big buzz about the Fudge with this Mystery album. Unfortunately we imploded as a band, personally and legally. To make a long story short, we had a lot of problems that led to the demise of that record. It really never got the promotion that it should have. In the meantime the irony of it all was Quiet Riot comes out and it becomes the biggest album in the world, like 7-8 million copies and starts the big heavy metal thing again.
With the new album, how did you narrow down the song list?
Cleopatra signed the band. Brian [Perera], the head of the company, said he wanted to call it The Spirit of 1967. He said, “You guys should do what you did on the first album and try to do that same approach. Pick all songs from 1967.” So they gave us a list and the band all picked out songs that we thought we’d be able to approach. Songs like “The Letter” and “Ruby Tuesday,” I arranged at home in pre-production on the piano, and we worked out the arrangements from there. “Break on Through” is something we started jamming in the studio and came up with this really cool groove and theme. “The Letter,” I just sat down at the piano and started singing it like a ballad. Then boom…we broke into that Mad Dogs and Englishmen Joe Cocker kind of riff in there.
When I was doing “Break on Through,” I had this piece [that comes in the middle] I came up with, out of nowhere. I call it “The Afterlife Suite in D minor.” The song says “Break on through to the other side,” and suddenly I try to take the audience into the afterlife. I don’t want to sound condescending, but with that song I felt like I was on the other side in the afterlife, you know? I just got a chill when that came out. I said, “Where’d that come from?” Then it goes into the Dio [riff]. Ronnie James Dio was really great friends with Carmine and we were really close. And he’s gone. Then, [the harmonies] are like the O’Jays on the end, “Break on through to the oooother side.” I was just so excited about the arrangement.
The only thing I wasn’t too sure about was the rap at the end of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Well I don’t know, I kind of heard that post-whatever. Some people like it and some people don’t know, like you said. You thought we were trying to be too commercial?
My feeling was more like, with Vanilla Fudge, I want to hear heavy rock. You have this history but at the same time, you’re doing new albums. Is it hard getting notoriety beyond nostalgia circuit?
Well we do what we do. The band rocks. People come see us and they’re always [telling us], for guys our age, we bring it. We bring it every night. I don’t look at it as nostalgia. To me, we’re rockers. We bring the energy and the drama every night. We come offstage soaking wet like when we were kids. And I always get comments, “We go to see old bands, they go up there just play to make the money but we don’t know anybody that rocks like Vanilla Fudge does.”
Does it still feel as powerful playing “You Keep Me Hanging On” as it did in 1967?
Oh yeah. Every time we play it, you can feel the tension and energy from the crowd. We play it as the last song in the set or sometimes we use it as an encore. And there’s a love between the crowd and Fudge when we do that song. It’s very, very special because it brings back a great time for everybody that’s in the house. I don’t think there’s ever been one night that it wasn’t a successful experience.