Buffalo - 1973 & Volcanic Rock
Here are my original liner notes for the 2005 CD reissue on Aztec of Buffalo's phenomenal 1973 album Volcanic Rock.
Thanks to Dave Tice, Pete Wells (R.I.P.) and John Baxter.
By Ian McFarlane © 2005
By the end of 1972, Australia’s legendary progressive rock heavy weights Buffalo had established themselves as a prominent force on the local rock scene. The band’s debut album Dead forever… had sold well enough yet its true significance was rating as the very first Australian release on the prestigious Vertigo imprint which gained them valuable attention overseas.
The line-up had remained stable since the band’s inception in August 1971: Dave Tice (vocals), John Baxter (guitar), Pete Wells (bass), Alan Milano (vocals) and Paul Balbi (drums). Nevertheless, they were in a curious position when it came to their live appearances, with their local gigging schedule having dropped off considerably. As writer Richard Lyones reported in Sydney-based rock paper Sound Blast (December 1972): “The amazing thing is that, despite the tremendous sales of “Dead Forever”, despite their now international standing, despite the huge crowd they pulled to Paddo Town Hall earlier this year, promoters just aren’t booking them. Despite all that proof to the contrary, some promoters say they believe Buffalo isn’t profitable.”
This seems to have hung heavy on the band’s collective minds because they almost split up before the year was over. Tice had actually joined a new band called Mr. Madness being put together by four ex-members of Sydney-based psych-pop outfit Flake. The new band commenced gigging, but then the bosses at Buffalo’s record label, Phonogram/Vertigo, wanted them to support legendary British heavy metal demi-gods Black Sabbath at two Sydney concerts (Hordern Pavilion, 16th and 17th January 1973) as part of their second Australian tour (promoting the Volume 4 album). This was an opportunity too good to miss: Sabbath was one of the biggest bands of the day and indeed the local boys had often been compared favourably to the Brit metal masters. Tice remembers finishing the support slots to Sabbath, rushing offstage, jumping into a waiting car and heading across town to fulfill his singing role with Mr. Madness for three sets a night at Chequers disco. Naturally, his long-term allegiance lay with only one band: Buffalo.
Dave Tice remembers the Black Sabbath supports as “being really important shows… After I’d split, the record company came to us and said ‘fellas, you’ve got your album out, it’s sold well, we don’t want you to split up, Black Sabbath is coming and we want you as support band’. Dead forever… had been out for a while and we were on the same label as Black Sabbath of course, Vertigo. There was some discussion about whether we were gonna do it or not and we decided to do it and thankfully it was really good. I don’t remember seeing Black Sabbath because I had to leave straight away to play with Mr. Madness, but the reception we got was exceptional. I’ve had people come up to me in recent years and they say ‘oh I remember when you guys supported Black Sabbath and you blew them away’, y’know? Now, of course that is a matter of perspective but it’s nice to have people come up to you and say that.”
“Supporting Black Sabbath was a real highlight for me!” John Baxter declares. “We played to big crowds on both nights and we went over pretty well. Unfortunately we never got to meet Sabbath. On the first night I went up to their dressing room, knocked on the door but there was nobody around. I just stuck my head in and saw Tony Iommi’s guitar. I thought, ‘I’ll go and have a look at this’. So I walked up to it and I was feeling the strings and they were like elastic bands, they felt real soft and they were probably real light strings as well. And then a roadie walked in so I had to make a quick exit (laughs). That was it, nothing was said. So at least I touched Tony Iommi’s guitar for a split second. But it was a great gig for us. For a band that never got any radio airplay, to support Black Sabbath was fantastic.”
With the band’s spirits revitalised, their touring schedule immediately picked up. They scored another important support slot on the national package tour by British bands Slade, Lindisfarne, Status Quo and Caravan that did the outdoor concert rounds during February. Now down to a streamlined four-piece line-up of Tice, Baxter, Wells and new drummer Jimmy Economou, Buffalo ploughed ahead with more determination than ever and commenced work on their second album at United Sound Studios. Sound Blast reported that United Sound had recently imported new quadraphonic (four-channel) recording equipment and that the first to use the facilities would be none other than Buffalo! While working with the same producer/executive producer team of Spencer Lee and Dermot Hoy, this seemed the ideal opportunity to make an impact on record, yet the quadraphonic recordings never eventuated. What did eventuate, however, is one of the band’s greatest records and essentially the first real heavy psych metal album ever issued in Australia: the absolutely blazing Volcanic Rock (Vertigo 6357 101).
The importance of Volcanic Rock can never be overstated. This is the album that established the band’s reputation for dispensing uncompromising heavy psych rock of monumental proportions; this is the album that continues to enthrall aficionados of the genre the world over.
With the new album and its single, ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’ b/w ‘Pound of Flesh’ (Philips 6037 035) out by August, the band was regularly headlining its own gigs around Sydney and interstate. They also picked up a major support gig (alongside the La De Das, Mighty Kong, Country Radio and Hush) to Sherbet and the Aztecs at the AMCO Supershow, Liverpool Speedway in December.
Reviews of the album were positive: “Buffalo is back. And that’s good news for those who like their rock steamin’ hot and raunchy… and Australian! (The album) thumps, it bumps and grinds gut solid from go to woe. The music howls and screams all around, and over guitar and bass riffs. It’s what you would expect from Buffalo, and that makes it easy to decide about the record… The production is good too. It’s going to be compared to Black Sabbath, but what the hell, Australia needs a band like that anyway!” (Sound Blast, August 1973).
Melbourne based Go-Set magazine never really warmed to Buffalo, describing the single ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’ as: “Heavy, solid, fast-moving rock. But sadly it sounds Sunbury ’72 – and strong music doesn’t date. The vocalist has a powerful gnawing sort of voice, earthy and interesting. But the Steppenwolf influences are too obvious. Other side, Pound of Flesh, is musically more fulfilling. There’s the steady pounding rhythmic section and a guitar which does some nice intricate things in a lively pulsating sort of way.”
Irrespective of the views at the time, there’s no denying the album’s power to this day. Buffalo had already earned a reputation as macho progressive heavies with the release of Dead forever…, but it was Volcanic Rock that cemented the legend. With its full quota of scorching, molten heavy metal, Volcanic Rock sounds as sweet as a Mach truck driving through a china shop, with twice as much crunch to boot! Tracks like ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’ with its frenzied intro and pounding beat, ‘Shylock’ and ‘Till My Death’ typified the band’s attitude and approach: raw, hard-nosed riff rock, as dirty, loud and vicious as hell. Epic tracks like ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Prophet’ saw the band members stretching out and flexing their musical muscle. These songs are essentially loose jams built up in the studio, but that doesn’t detract from the overall impact.
An interesting point to note is that for the original album program, ‘Pound of Flesh’ and ‘Shylock’ were sequenced together as one long, two-part track.
"Oh Shylock... pay me now!"
“This is a very subjective thing, but I think tracks like ‘Shylock’, ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Prophet’ are pretty much quintessential Buffalo tracks; they’re what I would really hang the band on, y’know?” Dave Tice explained. “They had that stream of consciousness thing going on, where we jammed them out in the studio; they are perfect examples of that. With ‘The Prophet’, John said to me recently, ‘I never realised what good lyrics you wrote Dave’, and quite religious in some ways. I guess John used to think that the lyrics, without sitting down and analysing them, were almost blasphemous and a little risqué. There is a bit of that but there’s a semi-religious content to them as well which is not so obvious. I think he discovered that himself in recent times. I don’t think he always took much notice of the lyrics whereas I used to labour over them quite a bit because I had to sing the damn things, y’know? Sometimes, with lyrics you write them down and then you’re appalled with having to deliver them. What might look good on paper might not come out so well when you sing them (laughs). But I could always make them work.”
“In my opinion ‘Shylock’ was our top live song, the song Buffalo we’re most recognised for,” Baxter confirms. “That was the song we played at every gig. That epitomised our style. I’d written the music at home and when I took it to the guys in rehearsals I said ‘look, I’ve got this idea, I don’t know, it’s not that good, do you wanna hear it?’ So Dave said ‘yeah, yeah, play it’. So I played it and they liked it. It was good that they did, otherwise I probably would have tossed it out. It became our most popular live song.”
Buffalo appeared at a concert held in Hyde Park for the Sydney Spring Festival 1973. Pop band Sherbet headlined the concert bill and Baxter remembers the day as wet and overcast. Nevertheless, Buffalo delivered an absolutely blazing rendition of the momentous ‘Shylock’ and all fans of the band will be intrigued to hear it after more than 30 years.
Baxter continues, warming to the memories: “The first album had a bit of variety on there; we were obviously still finding our way. It probably wasn’t the exact sound we were after but at the time we were happy with it. After that we went full on hard rock; no ballads. It was more my influences because I am a head banger. For Volcanic Rock we just decided to go full on, we recorded it live in the studio without any touch-ups. It was a very raw sound which is what we were aiming for. I’m not a ballad person myself. Being the main songwriter, I wrote all the music and got the songs going and then Dave would add his lyrics later. I’d bring ideas to rehearsal and then we’d jam on them and develop the songs from there. The music was up to me and that’s where we headed. The other guys were happy to head that way as well. I’m a heavy metal player; that’s what I do best.”
“The sound I developed came with the Gibson SG guitar and the Australian made Strauss Hurricane amplifier that I used; nothing else in between except occasional wah wah. It was a 200 watt RMS valve amp with two quad boxes. I used to love that amp! I’ve used Marshalls, Lennards, AC30s, all sorts of other amps and they never matched up to that Strauss amp. That amp’s gone now, I had to sell it. I also sold the SG quite a while ago. I was happy with my playing on the albums, there are little things I look back on now and think ‘it’s a pity that’s there’ or ‘I could have done a bit better there’. I think I did a pretty good job. From Volcanic Rock onwards, that four year period I was at my peak. Volcanic Rock and Only Want You for Your Body are the most representative albums when it comes to my guitar playing style.”
Wells indeed shares that opinion: “I think the best album is Volcanic Rock; we just seemed to capture a certain sound. It just seems to have survived the best. Generally speaking, just the style of playing and approach seems to make sense to me. I can’t remember that much about recording it; I’ve done a lot of recording since then so it’s very hard to remember specific recording sessions. ‘Shylock’ was always one of our gun numbers for sure. It always seemed to work when we played it live and people always liked it. If there’s any song from that era that people always focus on, that’s the one.”
Instrumentally the members of Buffalo were indeed at the top of their game on Volcanic Rock with Baxter’s savage guitar work and Wells’ throbbing, woody bass lines being real highlights, while Tice’s vocals never sounded so demented. Likewise, when drummer Economou really got wound up, there was basically no way of stopping him short of a sharp blow to the head. The album came with a fold-out illustrated lyric sheet, as well as featuring a garish and controversial gatefold cover illustration by J. Phillip Thomas: a graphic yet hilarious depiction of the female form as a menstruating volcano! To top it off, a fiery denizen of the volcano holds aloft a glowing, phallic shaped molten rock. Wonder what the feminists of the day had to say about that little lot!
“The Volcanic Rock cover, we thought it was pretty cool!” Tice laughs now. “I am surprised we got away with it at the time. From memory, there were two or three different designs put forward and the artwork that got used was the last one that the record company wanted to use (laughs). Only Want You for Your Body was the same too. The record company were shitting themselves what people might think. Ross Barlow was head of Phonogram at the time, and he was overseas when the Volcanic Rock artwork was getting put together and he sent a telex from New York or somewhere saying ‘watch what you guys put on the front cover’, y’know, and when he got back that’s what he was confronted with (laughs).”
“Our idea was to be controversial. Now those things aren’t considered controversial anymore although Volcanic Rock still has a certain amount of shock value especially to our feminist cousins. They still find it offensive and that’s good I reckon, because that’s what we were trying to do. You know, we wanted people to say ‘what the fuck is this; we’d better have a listen’. It’s the visual experience that can entice you; often you’d listen to an album because you saw something that appealed to you graphically on the cover. That’s always been very important. I continue to tell people ‘it’s no good making a great record and then sticking it in a package that no-one’s gonna take any notice of’, y’know? You might as well just hide it away. If you wanted people to take notice of you then you’d better damn well stand out!”
Baxter laughs too, but for a slightly different reason. “Volcanic Rock… That cover was a bit embarrassing to me. That demon on the volcano should have been holding a guitar above his head, I reckon, not what he was holding. I thought that was ridiculous (laughs). He should have been holding a flaming guitar. I would be much happier with that now. At the time we just thought it looked good. It did stand out; it was outlandish and caught people’s attention. That was the tactic we had to employ. No airplay, so we had to get people to listen to our music somehow. The record company was good; they didn’t push us too much. We had a very supportive and enthusiastic producer in Dermot Hoy. He saw our potential in the first place and he made the way clear for us to record our albums. With the covers, the company came up with the ideas and Ian Brown from the art department would say ‘okay, we’ll get the artwork done and we’ll okay it with you’. Usually we liked the artwork; I think the concepts were accepted straight away.”
"Some day sunrise coming my way..."
The album version of ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’ was noteworthy, in that it’s a full minute longer than the single edit wherein the lead break mid-song had been excised for the sake of expected radio airplay. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that anyone held out much hope for a Buffalo hit single! What’s more, the single version was in mono and noticeable for the fact that it lacked the dual lead guitar lines in the intro. Interestingly, most of the singles released by Phonogram on the blue and silver Philips label of the day were mono mixes. The mono single version of ‘Sunrise (Come My Way)’ appeared again as part of the rare Buffalo EP (Vertigo 6237 001) in 1974, alongside ‘Suzie Sunshine’, ‘Dead Forever’ and ‘Barbershop Rock’. We’ve included both the album and mono single versions here for comparison. As a reference point it’s worth noting that a tremendous live rendition of the song, recorded in October 1974 at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion, was broadcast on the ABC-TV’s rock show GTK (Get To Know).
The 1973/74 period proved to be a busy and exciting time for Buffalo. They were on a roll, and following the release of Volcanic Rock they recorded their next album and continued to tour; however, the wind of change was howling and ructions towards the end of 1974 were set to destroy the band’s resolve and spirit.
By way of concluding this portion of the Buffalo story, Tice says “I still love those Buffalo albums. For a long time I didn’t listen to them. I couldn’t listen to them, I’d moved on. As you progress through your musical career there’s a time where you look back with disdain at what you did previously. You hope that you’re progressing, getting better at what you do. What I tended to hear when I did listen to the albums was the things I wasn’t happy with, the things that I thought were mistakes. I’d think, ‘I could have done that a bit better’ or ‘I didn’t hit the note quite right there’, y’know? You need a bit more distance to have perspective on these things. I’ve got a lot more perspective on it now; I can enjoy them again now. I can see them for what they were; I don’t need to justify them now. Also, you become more at ease with these kinds of things with the weight of other people’s opinions, you know what I’m saying?”
“I listen to the albums now and say ‘okay, we were young guys but the noises we made then are still being appreciated today’. And that continues to amaze me but I can see why now. Once upon a time I couldn’t see that. You’re too close to it, but you can’t divorce yourself completely from something that is really an expression of your personality at the time. If you have reason to want to put that behind you, it becomes a bit of an embarrassment. That might be a bit of a harsh word, but you know what I’m saying. You might think, ‘how could I have been so naïve?’ It’s got nothing to do with your technical ability as a singer or musician, but your perception of the world and how you relate to it does change drastically over time. I can look back and say ‘well it still stands up, I don’t have to be embarrassed by it, I think it’s fucking good work’, y’know? I hear myself singing and I think, ‘fuck Dave, you’re really not a bad singer at all’. There are some good songs there and thankfully I can see it within the context of which it was done.”
Wells is likewise down to earth when he states, “I’m not sure why the music still stands up. It’s a range of different things. I always ask people about that, younger people who have only been into the music for the last decade or so. I ask them, ‘well, why do you like the music’ and they say that it reminds them of a bunch of newer bands that have that same style. They just like it. Personally, I’ve got no idea why people still like the music. It’s a bit of a mystery to me really. There’s just a certain quality about the sound that appeals. It’s usually fans of that style of music and they’ve got all sorts of collectable records, they’re very enthusiastic about the music and they just go out of their way to collect it. They’re very keen on the music across the board.”
“I’ll be interested to see the reaction to these new CDs,” Wells concedes. “I don’t know if people will buy them. Will the old guys like them, will the young kids like them? I’m just interested to see who will buy them and who will relate to them. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me. Dave still works all the time, so do I, but the other guys who were in the band don’t play much now, so it’ll be interesting to see what everyone makes of the albums. There are the real record enthusiasts who will like the CDs, but the general record buying public couldn’t care less I’m sure.”
To be continued...
Volcanic Rock originally issued as Vertigo 6357 101 (August 1973)
1. SUNRISE (COME MY WAY) (Album version) (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
2. FREEDOM (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
3. TILL MY DEATH (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
4. THE PROPHET (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
5. INTRO: POUND OF FLESH (John Baxter/Peter Wells)
6. SHYLOCK (Dave Tice/John Baxter)
Play this album even louder!
DAVE TICE: Vocals
JOHN BAXTER: Guitar
PETER WELLS: Bass guitar
JIMMY ECONOMOU: Drums