Currently topping the Billboard album chart is Volume 24 of the Now That’s What I Call Music series. Only in recent years have compilation albums like these had enough star power and major-label clout to climb high on the charts, but I was buying them before it was cool. And writing about them, too: One of the very first posts on this blog, when it was only about a month old, was about some of the K-Tel compilations in my record library.
K-Tel and its 70s competitors (Ronco and Adam-8 were the most famous) were occasionally unkind with the razor blade, creating their own custom edits of some songs, and there was no way to tell if a song had been edited until you got the shrink-wrap off, after which you couldn’t get your money back. I still wonder why the original copyright holders didn’t object to some of those edits.
Compilations from Warner Special Products were different. You could generally count on getting at least the official 45 rpm edits of certain songs, and often the album versions, with never a bad edit. One of my most treasured Warner Special Products collections is the “Superstars of the 70s” series. There were four sets in the series as far as I know: the eponymous Superstars of the 70s, a four-disc set, along with Heavy Metal, Rockin’ Easy, and Silver Bullets, each a two-disc set. I have ’em all, and I’m not parting with ’em.
Superstars of the 70s plays mostly like a respectable classic-rock radio station, and introduced me to certain artists I wasn’t hearing on my favorite Top 40 stations, like Jimi Hendrix (“Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze”) , the Grateful Dead (“Truckin'”), and Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”). It also includes Alice Cooper, Yes, the Doors (the long version of “Light My Fire”), the Kinks, Deep Purple, and the Jefferson Airplane. Most unusual of all, it includes tracks from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, who rarely appear on anthologies of any sort. There are some odd choices in that company, though, including Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Where Is the Love” by Flack and Donny Hathaway, and a couple of tunes by the Bee Gees (“Lonely Days” and “To Love Somebody”), but as a snapshot of the state of pop and rock circa 1973, you can scarcely do better.
I am guessing that I bought Heavy Metal with money I got for Christmas in 1974, because right now I am looking at a sheet of notebook paper I tucked inside the jacket with the track listing and the length of each track, personally timed by me and my stopwatch. For some reason, I signed and dated the listing—December 31, 1974. (Such a geek I was.) I played the living hell out of this album for the next two or three years. It’s not really a heavy-metal album (the first two tracks, “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5 and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” come closest); you could digitize it and put it on your favorite classic-rock station even now and nobody would be the wiser. It had to have some hits, though, or I wouldn’t have bought it to begin with: “Smoke on the Water” (the outstanding live version from Made in Japan), “Right Place, Wrong Time,” “D’yer Mak’er,” and “Radar Love.” It had several tunes I’d bought as 45s (Van Morrison’s “Domino” and “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex), and it was my introduction to several songs I still dig today, including “Ride Captain Ride” by Blues Image and “Outlaw Man” by the Eagles. The oddest track is probably “Starship Trooper” by Yes—not exactly the typical compilation tune circa 1974.
Coming tomorrow: Rockin’ Easy changes the tempo, Silver Bullets changes the mix.
Live and Kickin’: The MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” was the song on Heavy Metal I liked the least, but that’s because the band was utterly known to me back then. The MC5 was one of Detroit’s hardest-rockin’ bands; “Kick Out the Jams” was the title song from their 1969 debut album, which was recorded live—highly unusual then, and now. And in its original form, “Kick Out the Jams” began with lead singer Rob Tyner shouting, “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Elektra Records (part of the Warner Bros. empire back then) edited the expletive to “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!” That’s the version you’ll get below. Right off the vinyl.