Book Reviews

The ‘On Track’ series: Book Review

ON TRACK: JUDAS PRIEST From Rocka Rolla to Painkiller

ON TRACK: ELTON JOHN in the 1970s

ON TRACK: THE MOODY BLUES

ON TRACK: FRANK ZAPPA 1966 to 1979

Sonicbond Publishing

Available now

The next batch of releases in the On Track (‘Every album, every song’) series looks at the contrasting outputs of the Metal Gods, a decade of Sir Elton, The Moody Blues and the enigmatic Frank Zappa.

From Rocka Rolla to Painkiller, the Judas Priest catalogue is inspected by John Tucker. That’s everything up to 1990 for those not in the know, which is when things took an unusual direction with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens coming from tribute band obscurity into the rather large shoes of the departed Rob Halford.

judas priest on track

Hand in hand with KK Downing’s autobiography, it’s an interesting read. One that acknowledges the progression of a band whose identity, both musically and sartorially, was evolving. Noted is the difficulty in following up the success of the ‘difficult’ second album before the late seventies saw the band find their niche and their look. Stained Class was the album that despite being labelled ‘overlooked’ paved the way for Killing Machine,   released the same year – no Tool style delays for the Midlands metallers.

It’s a shame there’s no closure by taking the time to review the three albums of the nineties and the new millennium. Judas priest is Judas Priest is Judas Priest right? It may be that the lineup changes disrupt the flow and we’d like to remember Priest at their peak. The departure in 2011 of KK might have been the last straw for many although the universal acclaim for 2018’s Firepower is a shame to ignore.

At least the band gets praise where its due and Tucker isn’t afraid to pull no punches, in the nicest possible way. Ram It Down is “unfocussed and muddled” while United is “a song with fewer friends than Mr Lonely’s Facebook page” and justifiably so, although Glenn Tipton calls it “much better” than Take On The World, in the way that you do your best to defend your children.

A brief epitaph and acknowledgement of the live albums and video output of the era which quite rightly celebrates the camp metal comedy of the Breaking the Law video. The best anecdote is the one that leads into the Turbo appraisal – you’ll need to buy the book to see what comes before the “fuck off Judas Priest” punchline.  They were the quintessential metal band.

elton john on track

Also taking the slightly easier route of appraising a classic period rather than the challenge of looking across the period when Elton John was arguably at his best, 1969-1979 is scrutinised by Peter Kearns. Bookended by a simple introduction and outroduction, the Bernie Taupin years get appraised with a critical eye.

We know the singles and the music that rocketed Elton into the limelight, yet there’s a vitality about these seventies albums that highlight the singles as the tip of the iceberg. The quality of albums such as Tumbleweed Connection and Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (rather then Mike Harding’s Captain Paralytic and the Brown Ale Cowboy). It’s worth scouring the record markets for cut-price bargains while reading of the Crocodile Rock controversy, of which I was blissfully unaware back in 1972, but then I wasn’t of an age to care.

We stop as Elton starts to falter at Victim Of Love, labelled “the elephant in the room” with it’s piano-free Elton, that seems may be the best place, for now, to call a halt and let the legacy of those early years remain untarnished by anything that followed.

Not one to shirk the On Track challenge, The Moody Blues’ whole catalogue goes under the watchful eye of Geoffrey Feakes with the prog/orchestral/symphonic rock pioneers delivering a clutch of signature albums in the seventies. Aside from an impressive catalogue, the Moodies must hold some sort of record for the number of compilations and to his credit, he gives a guide to the must-haves for the non-believers who may want to dip into the minefield of Nights In White Satin-led ‘best of’s.

the moody blueson track

Solo outings, a listing of seventeen ‘almost forgotten’ songs that aficionados and deeper fans will appreciate and counter, and an attempt at a top twenty but restricted to a maximum of two songs per album all add to extensive analysis.

The lengthy mid-seventies sabbatical halted the stream of groundbreaking records  (eight albums in eight years) while the return with Octave in 1978 in the fresh musical climate of the time saw a less bloated band deliver the next eight in a lengthier 25 years. Nonetheless, the Moodies always retained their core values of lush, soft rock.

There’s no doubting though, as with the Jethro Tull and Yes tomes in the series, that the late sixties and seventies were the golden years in terms of musical progression and commercial/critical acclaim. The Days Of Future Passed album in 1969 when they transformed from the Magnificent Moodies R’n’B outfit into their most recognizable form, proved a groundbreaking and genre-defining set that influenced a generation and to this day is still revered. Perhaps one of those albums that someone could make the single subject of a book. The Moodies recorded history seems very much to parallel that of Yes in the way that the new music of their latter days pales into significance compared with the halcyon days.  They have a diverse and complex history and credit to Feakes for not drawing unnecessary boundaries.

And finally, in what may be the greatest challenge to the On Track authors yet, Eric Benac attempts to make some inroads into the output of Frank Zappa from 1966-1979. Again a snapshot of perhaps the most diverse catalogue in the annals of rock history, but you can understand the attempt to deal with a bite-sized portion given the Zappa complexity.

Having never really got to grips with Zappa, the content may pass me by although act as some sort of reference point at which to delve into the very deep waters.

Even a casual flick through the pages reveals song titles such as Dog Breath, Zomby Woof, Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead, This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich and who can possibly forget Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow – they don’t quite say it all, the implication that Zappa is about novelty music. There’s some seriously challenging composition going on in his work be it complex jazz fusion or more classically directed. Fan of Zappa or not, On Track is an education in itself and a great credit to anyone who can attempt to start to make some sense of his oeuvre.

Bizarre and off-kilter, whether you listen to his work or read about it as a fan or beguiled onlooker, he was a musician whose boundaries were fluid and, erm, boundless. Despite the shock of his death in 1993 – remarkably twenty-six years ago – ongoing Zappa related musical projects from various sources means his music lives on and the phrase ‘tip of the iceberg’ would never be more appropriate.

It leaves us looking forward to examining the next batch of ‘On Track’s with some names with which we’re a little more familiar lined up: Iron Maiden, Dream Theater and Fairport Convention.

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