Five Of The Greatest & Least Known UK Hard Rock Songs (Unless You’re a Fan Of The Band)
I’ve seen hundreds of rock bands live. Working in the music industry afforded me a close-up look at greatness. Unfortunately many times the public does not recognize, let alone buy greatness.
You have to have some sort of following to make a financially sustainable band. But outside of their own sphere of influence many great hard rock bands operated within a vacuum. The main reason: radio. Popularity had / has a direct relationship with radio airplay.
Releasing a song as a successful radio single was a passport to greater renown. Hard rock bands that produced great music did not necessarily fall into the hit machine mentality, and could rarely crack top 40 radio or FM rock charts in the United States. Adding the moniker “hard rock” to a band and most radio programmers would turn up their noses to a band without even giving a listen. Add the fact that your band is not from the USA and the uphill climb seemed like going up the Himalayas without a Sherpa.
Here are what I consider to be five of the all-time greatest underappreciated / unknown hard rock songs from UK bands.
All of the songs are by bands that had some measure of success. If you know the band, you may be familiar with some of their work. Unfortunately few are familiar with most of these songs.
The Bands & Their Songs
Gates of Babylon – Rainbow
First up the vastly underappreciated Rainbow or more rightfully Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.
Rainbow is guitar god Ritchie Blackmore’s 1975 child. A revolving door of supporting members stunted critical and commercial superstardom. They had radio hits and a very dedicated appreciative fanbase, but not critical acclaim. But to many fans of the former Deep Purple songwriter and guitarist, Rainbow is actually Ritchie Blackmore’s greatest contribution to music.
Rainbow’s original singer was Ronnie James Dio. Three studio albums were released with Dio between 1975 and 1978. Dio then left Rainbow acrimoniously, joining Black Sabbath to replace Ozzy Osbourne.
Long Live Rock N’ Roll the final Rainbow album with Dio has a definite bend towards commercial appeal while maintaining musical integrity. Successive Rainbow albums would lead to steadier radio airplay.
The Gates of Babylon is not one of those songs. It would never be played on the radio, but it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a soaring epic where the whole band shines. Drummer Cozy Powell is a standout here. The 1978 song remains a buried classic.
In this unusual pre-MTV video, Dio overdubs his vocals live in the studio while the band is on audio playback and gives a walloping performance. The eerie tune is phrased beautifully and simply spellbinding.
Cold Sweat – Thin Lizzy
Irish rockers Thin Lizzy had one huge song that continues to get radio airplay to this day; The Boys Are Back In Town. Besides that hit, few people are aware of the quality of Thin Lizzy’s output.
The late bass player, songwriter and lead singer Phil Lynott was the driving force of the band. His distinct voice and unusual style of playing bass on top of the beat makes Lynott’s sound instantly recognizable. Lynott died of complications of a heroin overdose in 1986 at the age of 36.
One of many tunes that never received wide exposure is a song about gambling addiction, Cold Sweat. Today it’s a little bit more well known now than when it was originally released in 1983. Why? Several heavy metal bands have covered it including Megadeth, Helloween and Sodom.
Riding With The Angels – Samson
We featured Argent’s Russ Ballard and his great songwriting abilities previously. Ballard is a master at catchy songs and Riding With The Angels is no exception. It’s a little ditty about a girl running away to join up with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club! The best version of the song is by Samson. Who are Samson?
Anyone familiar with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) will tell you that Samson featured a young singer given the unfortunate stage name of Bruce Bruce. It comes from a Monty Python Sketch. As soon as Bruce Bruce was induced to leave Samson, he changed back to his given last name and Bruce Dickinson became the lead singer of Iron Maiden.
Here is Samson’s 1981 version of Ballard’s Riding With The Angels from the album Shock Tactics.
Gudbuy T’Jane – Slade
If there was a great rock band that had a hard time of getting past their glam image it would have to be Slade.
The band is better known today for having their songs covered by Quiet Riot and purposeful misspellings of song titles. Who could forget Cum on Feel The Noize or Mama Weer All Crazee Now? A generation of quasi-headbangers should know Slade but they probably don’t.
Their biggest hit in America was an early MTV staple, the anthem, Run Runaway, one of the few hit songs to ever feature bagpipes.
Slade featuring Noddy Holder on vocals and guitar, Dave Hill on lead guitar, Jim Lea on bass and Don Powell on drums made inroads all over the world except America. They had numerous number one hits in the UK but could not get airplay in the early 70s when it would have propelled them to broad popularity. Ozzy Osbourne said “Noddy Holder’s got one of the greatest voices.”
Too bad not enough rock fans have ever really heard that voice. The foot-stomping Gudbuy T’ Jane is from 1972’s album Slayed? A brilliant piece of songwriting.
Rock Bottom – UFO
Our final selection is from a band that U.S. radio ignored like the plague. Mention UFO to a rock fan and they’ll first think of spaceships rather than a band. Yet UFO influenced almost every major heavy metal band that became popular in the 1980s and beyond, most notably Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, Megadeth, Slayer, Testament, Anthrax, Metallica, Dio, Overkill, The Offspring, Alice in Chains, Scorpions and Guns N’ Roses.
UFO recorded albums in 1970 and 1971 that were largely ignored. After the departure of guitarist Mick Bolton, UFO started to get noticed. It was the 1974 addition of UFO’s brilliant lead guitarist Michael Schenker, younger brother of Scorpions founder Rudolf Schenker, that changed the fortunes of the band. Michael Schenker was a songwriter extraordinaire and came up with some mindblowing licks. Michael had briefly been a member of Scorpions, but it was with UFO he made his name and in the process took the band to a higher strata. There was also the live onstage charisma of lead singer Phil Mogg, bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker.
UFO toured constantly in the 1970s selling out theaters and arenas, adding a rhythm guitarist Paul Raymond in 1976. UFO was gathering a fan base without benefit of a U.S. hit radio song. One exception might be Too Hot To Handle from the 1977 album Lights Out. With Lights Out the band hit its highest point ever, number 23, on the Billboard rock LP chart. Their influence on other musicians is even more remarkable considering not one of the band’s 38 studio or live albums ever went gold (selling 500,000 units) in the USA.
Schenker left UFO in 1978 and has rejoined the band three times.
One amazing song is Rock Bottom from the 1974 album Phenomenon. Schenker’s pyrotechnic solo at the four minute mark is simply jaw dropping.