If you were a teenager in the 70s and liked rock music, you certainly heard these songs blasting from muscle cars on the strip, or on boom boxes at school, and at parties every weekend. There was an implied agreement that the album was required listening for the ‘rocker’ culture of the Seventies. It was a record that had a significant amount of followers, nearly everyone into rock music just loved it, and there was always someone that would loan you their disc so you could ‘tape’ it. You may have even owned Montrose or, perhaps, you still have a copy. If you do, there are 1,009 people on Discogs that want it!
Ronnie Montrose bought his first guitar from a pawn shop for sixty dollars. At the age of 17, he picked up his new Gibson Melody Maker and ran away from home to pursue his dream of a career in music. In 1969 he joined the band Sawbuck with Chuck Ruff, Starr Donaldson, Bill Church, and Mojo Collins. As the band prepared to record their debut album, Montrose and Church left Sawbuck to join Van Morrison on his Tupelo Honey album.
“For the next year or so we toured and opened for major acts and played the final week of the Fillmore West before it closed. During the making of the album, Ronnie was approached to do some commercial jingles and one was heard by Van Morrison, and Ronnie was gone, he later wound up with Edgar Winter and recruited Chuck Ruff from Sawbuck for The Edgar Winter Group, and that pretty much ended our tenure as a performing band.”
— Mojo Collins
In his 1983 book Van Morrison: The Mystic’s Music, Howard DeWitt recalls how “the musical explosion in Marin County also added a great deal to Van’s music. In particular, Ronnie Montrose’s guitar work made Tupelo Honey a rock classic.”
After Morrison released his album Montrose went on to join up and tour with Boz Scaggs, then in 1972, he became a member of the Edgar Winter Group. Touring briefly with Winter, he played numerous instruments on the classic album They Only Come Out At Night. In early 1973 Montrose left to form his own band, Montrose. He recruited his Sawbuck buddy, bassist Bill Church, then soon added a new guitarist and vocalist named Sammy Hagar, and drummer Denny Carmassi. Hagar and Carmassi had contributed to several projects together, and they were both members of popular San Francisco nightclub bands. Church and Montrose, during their session work for Morrison, had played for album producer Ted Templeman. This working relationship proved invaluable and provided a source of contact with Templeman, who then heard their demos and helped the newly formed group secure a deal with Warner Brothers Records.
The debut album was recorded at Warner Brothers Hollywood and guitar overdub tracks were laid at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. Montrose was released on October 17, 1973. Produced by Montrose and Ted Templeman, the album was less than a big seller upon its release, which was uneventful on U.S. charts. While it was soon considered a rock music standard by many hard rock fans, most tracks on the album received skimpy radio airplay, however “Bad Motor Scooter” and “Rock Candy” occasionally found their way to FM airplay. The two singles developed some much-needed publicity for both the Montrose name and the band’s hard-driving music style.
Assorted critics have labeled Montrose as the “first American heavy metal album”. ‘America’s answer to Led Zeppelin‘, the debut album has been highly influential on notable hard rock and heavy metal outfits including Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Motorhead. Iron Maiden has recorded cover versions of songs from this album, and “Space Station #5” was the B-side of their 1992 single “Be Quick or Be Dead”.
“We made one of the greatest hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time with that first Montrose album, and then he didn’t want to do that anymore.”
“I would like Montrose to be remembered as one of the pioneers of American heavy/hard rock. And certainly, one of the great hard rock guitar players. But he was more than that – he was really versatile. But if you’re going to remember him for anything, put on that first Montrose record.”
“Ronnie was the most fiery, intense guitar player of everybody. There was Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Clapton, those were the guys, but none had Ronnie’s fire. He played at 100 [percent], he was just on fire — he jumped around, just was a really high-energy performer. I learned all that from him, and everything I do today — no ego involved — it came from him, from seeing him perform that first time with Edgar Winter and then standing next to him within a week and rehearsing. I was always a high-energy guy, but I wasn’t that way [on stage] until I got in Montrose.”
Sammy Hagar, Rolling Stone, March 2012
“He wrote some of the mightiest riffs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” drummer Denny Carmassi said. “As a guitar player, he was up among the greats. His personal life is his personal life — and we all have personal lives, which are complex. But he was a great guitar player.”
The songs on this album, for some reason, weren’t really classic rock staples. Why this stuff didn’t get more airplay is quite a mystery. This is classic hard rock at its best. Every song from start to finish flat out rocks–no exceptions! For anyone who loves’70s and ’80s guitar rock and doesn’t have this one, you will find this a fresh, wonderful addition to your collection. The material may be 44 years old, but to real rock fans, it is timeless.
Despite touring with acts like Humble Pie, The Who, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, where Montrose would invariably slaughter all in their path when they played, the band struggled to translate that excitement into actual record sales. The LP wouldn’t arrive in the United Kingdom until March 1974 and, despite the fact that most other bands would chop up Granny to have “Rock The Nation” and “Bad Motor Scooter” on their album – it didn’t chart.
During an interview published in Vintage Guitar magazine’s January 1995 issue, Ronnie was asked about the intro to “Bad Motor Scooter”:
“Well, one thing you ought to know is that the song almost didn’t make it onto the album! (chuckles) We thought it was a “loser” track; just a little ditty that Sammy had written, but it was missing something. I tuned the (Les Paul) Junior down to Open D, and started dinking around with a slide; I was probably doing Johnny Winter riffs. I happened to hit something that sounded like a motorcycle, and everyone yelled “STOP!” all at the same time. (laughs) We all knew where that riff belonged, so we changed reels and did it as the intro to “Bad Motor Scooter”.”
The Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA) certified Montrose as a Gold Album on April 13, 1977, and awarded the record Platinum Album status on October 13, 1986. The album peaked at position 133 on the Billboard Album charts.
On March 3rd, 2012 Ronnie Montrose was pronounced dead by medics from Brisbane, California Fire Engine #81. The cause of his death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Although Montrose had taken about two years off from playing guitar after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007, he had been active in recent years — recording a DVD and touring.
A Montrose family friend published an intimate conversation with Ronnie’s widow Leighsa in Guitar Player magazine. The article also detailed Montrose’s long-term bouts with alcoholism and clinical depression, as well as Leighsa’s belief that the suicide had been planned:
“Ronnie had a very difficult childhood, which caused him to have extremely deep and damaging feelings of inadequacy,” Leighsa told Guitar Player. “This is why he always drove himself so hard. He never thought he was good enough. He always feared he’d be exposed as a fraud. So he was exacting in his self-criticism, and the expectations he put upon himself were tremendous. Now I see that perhaps he didn’t want to carry these burdens for very much longer.”
“My sense of Ronnie as the persistent and decisive adventurer—as well as all his music about space, flight, and travel—speaks volumes about his choice and his action,” reflected Leighsa. “Seeing beyond was always what he did best. He was always breaking new ground, following his heart, his intuition, his star. And for reasons we may never fully understand, he made a choice to ‘lift off.’
At this point, we could spout our own accolades about this album and the memories the music reignites, but true Montrose fans already know how it would go. So we’ll just thank our lucky stars that we had the pleasure of enjoying this work of art. It truly will be around forever!
Fans of Ronnie and his work have something more from Mr. Montrose: Ronnie Montrose 10×10 – his final, nearly lost album went on sale last September. More info and facts about the band and the man can be found on his website, his Facebook page and Facebook memorial page at Montrose Remembered. There also was a celebration of his work in a concert dedicated to him; the place is Ronnie Montrose Remembered. Fans and friends of Ronnie and crew will enjoy the Ronnie Montrose Celebration Page which highlights the ups and downs of Ronnie’s influence. Take a few moments and visit them today!