Rhinoceros – Rhinoceros (’68) and Vanilla Fudge – Vanilla Fudge (’67)
Two groups that had their moment but never made it. Rhinoceros’s demise came as a result of Elektra’s publicity machine failing to get anyone sufficiently excited about their music, not to mention a few questionable management choices (for example, skipping an invitation to Woodstock). Vanilla Fudge fared better for a while, winding up with plenty of television appearances and having the fledgling Led Zeppelin open for them on their American tour. Unlike Rhinoceros, the group was inept at writing their own songs but would try to do so anyway at the insistence of their producer. As a result, they faded into oblivion. The real tragedy in my book is Rhinoceros, who should have been some sort of big deal and should have cut a few great records. The world will be fine without the likes of Vanilla Fudge, whose eponymous cover album serves as an entertaining marker in a transitional period from flower-power to guitar hero.
Rhinoceros’s albums were reissued by Collector’s Choice in 2002 and 2003, the eponymous debut on its own and Satin Chickens (’69) and Better Times are Coming (’70) together as a double disc. Even if the latter two albums are cheaper this way, I still don’t think they’re worth it. Same goes for Vanilla Fudge. Beyond an above-average cover of Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” on Near the Beginning (Atco ’70), nothing in the rest of their repertoire impresses. Of course, I never checked out their recent album of Led Zeppelin covers, but they’re old men now, and old men rarely have the spark and energy that propelled them when they were fiery youngsters. Just look at the 2005 Cream reunion.
RHINOCEROS – Rhinoceros (Elektra ’68): A Paul Rothchild-conceived “supergroup” septet rounding up the likes of Michael Fonfara, John Finley (both of John & Lee & the Checkmates), Danny Weis (Iron Butterfly), and Doug Hastings (Buffalo Springfield) preceded the ramshackle Blind Faith and infamously (and unfamously) set the stage for such bullshit concoctions as something to get excited about. Difference is neither critics nor popular audiences alike bit the immense hype Elektra spouted, so the group saw gradual exits by principals and dissolved after three albums, relegating their work as little more than a footnote in the annals of rock history. Regardless, this all-white soul ‘n blues outfit was tight in a time of improvisatory excess: nimble guitar work, gleefully overwrought back-and-forth vocals, a meaty rhythm section, and Fonfara’s hammy Hammond that when put together cut ten songs in under thirty-seven minutes without one of them going over five. How many outfits in this canon can boast instrumentals as the shortest cut on their album? And how many can call it one of their primo tracks? How many would want to? A MINUS
VANILLA FUDGE – Vanilla Fudge (Atco ’67): History hasn’t remembered them kindly, and scribes who recall this LP of covers do so disdainfully. I can see why: neither Mark Stein nor Tim Bogert can sing, their renditions are irreverent, and they’re sloppy as hell. What does it mean when your bassist is more prominent than your guitarist and you have the balls to skip deep Side B cuts and dismantle not one, but two major Beatles tunes? Still, despite nothing here holding a candle to the originals, all are more than listenable, and their brand of psychedelic sludge is far less self-indulgent than their contemporaries. No long solos, light on the pointless hypnotic trash (the segues spell out Strawberry Fields!), and heavy on the dynamic performances. Cutting the speeds to half time, this isn’t so much a “link between psychedlia and hard rock” as it is a bunch of white boys doing foot-thumping soul interpretations. Too bad producer Shadow Morton would have his way and lead them astray from issuing covers into composing originals, not that I think they could have successfully sustained a high-profile career on the premise of redoing others’ work, but honesty obliges my admittance that it’s the only thing these misfits were ever good at. A MINUS