By Dave Thompson
Jimi Hendrix once called him the best guitarist in the world. He was The Rolling Stones’ first choice to replace Mick Taylor, and he gave them the riff that became “Start Me Up.” His first band, Taste, blueprinted heavy metal, and the second Black Sabbath album is that group’s tribute to Taste’s greatness. He lived through glam; he survived punk rock, and he’s got 17 CDs on the release schedule this year.
He is, of course, Rory Gallagher, and we have a lot of music to get through between now and the end of this article. Thankfully, we’re joined by his nephew, Daniel, one half of the family business that has kept Rory’s name alive since his death in 1995 (Rory’s brother Donal completes the team), to talk through one of the most exhilarating discographies on 20th-century rock — and one of the few that still demands rediscovery today.
“Take It Easy Baby” (aka In The Beginning), 1967
Born in Ballyshannon, Ireland, on March 2, 1948, Rory Gallagher’s early career saw him playing as far afield as Hamburg, Germany, with the Fontana Showband prior to forming Taste in 1966. A power trio that vies with Cream for the tag of “the world’s first,” Taste’s lineup was completed by bassist Eric Kittringham and drummer Norman Damery, and this seven-track semi-bootleg (released in the U.S. in 1974) represents the band’s first-ever demo recording.
“On The Boards” (1970)
Gallagher dissolved the first Taste, then rebuilt it around bassist Charlie McCracken and drummer John Wilson and launched into a frenzied assault on the U.K. A 1968 bootleg titled “London Invasion” captures the band at its most frighteningly intense, around the time of its debut single, April 1968’s “Blister on the Moon.” That went nowhere — a fate that also befell the band’s deal with the Major Minor label, and Taste eventually signed to Polydor in late 1968.
Released nine months apart in 1969 and 1970, Taste’s two studio albums are archetypal blues rock, shot through some astonishing detours.
“Some of the tracks,” says Daniel Gallagher, “could almost be very early metal, with that very deep, almost guttural bass.
“They tried to handle everything: tracks are country, the amazing jazz stuff they did on ‘On The Boards,’ and that took a lot of attention away from that dark, brooding sound. It was brilliant. And if Rory had allowed ‘What’s Going On’ to be released as a single after the Isle of Wight Festival, when they were really flying, a lot could have changed.”
“Live Taste” (1971)
“LIVE At The Isle Of Wight” (1971)
These two live albums epitomize Taste’s mastery of the live environment, with the festival show just shading things in terms of unremitting brilliance. Murray Lerner’s film of Taste’s full IOW performance is poised for DVD release (alongside a Taste box set compiled by Daniel Gallagher). Until then, this savage CD reminds us why even the other bands on stage that weekend went home in awe of Taste. And that included Hendrix.
“Rory Gallagher” (1971)
Abandoning Taste but retaining the format, Gallagher was joined now by bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Wilgar Campbell for a debut album that was as strong as that third Taste LP should have been (had the band only hung on to make it). At the same time, he was allowing hindsight to say he knew precisely where he intended going next ...
“Probably my favorite Rory studio album,” Daniel Gallagher says. “I really like low-fi recordings as simple as this. There’s no frills to it, no production, it’s really, ‘How loud can I get this amp?’ and ‘How well can I play through it?’ and ‘Guys, keep up’ to the band.”
“Live in Europe” (1972)
Unique in that many of its contents never appeared on a studio disc, “Live in Europe” was the first, and, in some ways, the best of Gallagher’s many solo concert sets.
“It’s such a good album, and he captures the songs so well. Anybody else would have rerecorded the songs in the studio environment to show how great they are, and tried to have hits with them. But Rory realized, ‘No, this is exactly how they should sound; I nailed them,’ and he never went back to them.”
Gallagher’s only Top 10 album in the U.K., “Live In Europe,” has too many highlights to list. But we must spare a thought for “I Could Have Had Religion,” a song that Gallagher based around four anonymously-written lines he found in a book of Irish poetry. He wrote the tune and further words, but still co-credited the song to the ubiquitous Trad Arr. So, when Bob Dylan rang him up one day, wanting to cover the song himself and hoping for further light on its origins, he was staggered to discover just how “un-trad” it really was. His own next album was intended to be an all folk covers affair, spotlighting his own rearrangement abilities.
“I can’t do that to this song,” the Zim said sadly. “Because I can’t take it away from you.”
“Bullfrog Interlude” (1972 bootleg)
Officially released as one half of the 1992 “G-Men Bootleg Series” box (alongside the later “Calling Hard”), a seamless blend of 1972-1973 live recordings bleed on from the “Live In Europe” tapes to remind us how little overdubbing a Gallagher show required before it could be deemed good enough for release: none whatsoever.
“Blueprint” (1973, REISSUED 2011)
Arguably, the repository for some of Gallagher’s best-known numbers – “Walk on Hot Coals” (immortalized on a classic “Old Grey Whistle Test” performance), “Daughter of the Everglades,” “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” — “Blueprint” was also his highest-charting studio album, reaching No. 12 in the U.K.
“I love things like ‘Tattoo’d Lady’ and ‘A Million Miles Away,’” Daniel Gallagher says. “Rory’s sax at the end of ‘A Million Miles Away’ is quite brilliant.”
“Irish Tour ’74” (1975) “Irish Tour ‘74” (remastered DVD and Blu-Ray released 2011)
Providing two separate views of the same tour, the CD was largely taped at the Cork show, while the DVD added material from Belfast and Dublin, “and it’s in keeping with all of Rory’s things,” says Daniel. “There’s no overdubbing. He nailed it every night. There’s very few live albums where you can truthfully say nothing was overdubbed, but this — and “Live in Europe” — are two of them.”
“Against The Grain” (1975)
This is Rory’s first post-Stones LP, his dalliance with the band having been four days spent in Rotterdam rehearsing before he hightailed to Japan for his own next tour. The Stones asked him to join the band, as well, but he demurred — and the need to record this album may have been one of the reasons why.
“The band are so together at this point, and they are really, really funky,” Daniel Gallagher says. “The drumbeat on ‘Admit It’ is unbelievable!”
Beat that, “Black and Blue.”
And as for Rory gifting his prospective employers with the riff to “Start Me Up” … well, that’s the tradition in the Gallagher household, and it wouldn’t be the first time Mick and Keef played magpies with other people’s music. It took The Stones six years to release it, of course, but it took Rory that long to record “Out on the Western Plain” — the “Against The Grain” highlight was a Leadbelly rebuild that had been around (in lyrically different form) since the Taste days.
“Calling Card” (1976)
“This and Irish Tour are where I’d start people if they didn’t know Rory,” says Daniel. “Maybe it’s Roger Glover’s production, but it’s his most mainstream album … you’ve got the funkiness of ‘Do You Read Me,’ the great rocking tracks like ‘Moonchild,’ his voice is really good on ‘Calling Card,’ the beautiful melody of ‘Edged In Blue’ …”
“Notes From San Francisco”
(1977 – released 2011)
Elliot Mazer was coming off a major hit with Rory’s Chrysalis labelmate, Frankie Miller, when Mazer was paired with Rory for a new LP at the end of 1977 — which the guitarist was already feeling uncomfortable about long before the San Francisco studio sessions were due to conclude. But then he caught The Sex Pistols’ final show at Winterland, and he scrapped the entire project. Too slick, too flash, it was too far removed from what he’d always believed music should be.
The album was scrapped, locked up in the archive, and Daniel Gallagher admits he expected to encounter a disaster zone when he first dusted off the old tapes. Instead he found an album that just needed a sympathetic new remix and a little more TLC than Rory had been prepared to allow it. According to producer Mazer, Rory’s final words before leaving the studio were ‘I don’t like the hi-hat’.” So Daniel fixed it.
Salvaging around half the cuts from the abandoned LP, but revisiting them with renewed passion and fury, “Photo Finish” is everything that the Mazer sessions weren’t, a savage reappraisal that never once looks back.
“‘Shadow Play’ is one of my favorite Rory songs’,” says Daniel. “And ‘Off The Handle,’ although the live version that I put on the live half of ‘Notes from San Francisco’ is even better.”
“Top Priority” (1979)
If Gallagher had released this album as a double set with its predecessor, nobody could have spotted the join, a point that is amplified by watching the period performances on the Montreux DVD .
“‘Follow Me’ is fantastic, ‘Bad Penny’…” begins Daniel Gallagher, “and we can add ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ and ‘Just Hit Town’ to the list of shining moments … but if you think this album’s good, you should have heard the live show!”
“Stage Struck” (1980)
Not quite the runt of the live Rory litter, “Stagestruck” is nevertheless the most overlooked — which is a shame, because it catches the Ted McKenna and Gerry McAvoy rhythm section doing its best to catapult Gallagher back to the energies of Taste, and succeeding with room to spare.
This is Gallagher’s final U.K. chart album — it reached No. 68 in spring 1982 — and his last for Chrysalis. “There’s some really cool things on it,” Daniel Gallagher said. “‘Signals’ is definitely one of my favorite Rory songs, there’s all those new-wave sounds on it. There’s some amazing solos … ‘Jinxed’ is fantastic; ‘Double Vision’ I can imagine The Stones doing now … and ‘Big Guns,’ obviously. When people think of Rory off the top of their head, they don’t think about this album, but there really is some great stuff on it.”
“Jinx” was Gallagher’s only LP for five years, as he concentrated instead on touring and setting up his own Capo label. He bounced back with “Defender,” an album that had undergone a handful of false starts before it truly got going but was definitely worth the wait. Sounding closer to his youthful self than he had in years, Gallagher’s “Defender” was cut with no expectations of chart fame or 5-star reviews — but it should have received both.
“Live at Cork Opera House 1987”
A grandiose live performance whose late date belies the sheer youth and ebullience of performer and performance. Four songs from “Defender” highlight some of that album’s most magnificent moments, while the version of “Out on the Western Plain” is simply spellbinding.
“Fresh Evidence” (1990)
“The lyrics on ‘Fresh Evidence’ are that kind of ‘don’t give a … ’; it’s all about having taken so many hits, dealt with so much stuff, the walking wounded,” Daniel Gallagher said. “Everyone’s had their chance, but I’m still here making another record … ‘Kid Gloves,’ with that stuff about being asked to take a dive…. It’s a very independent record, a very fierce one.”
It was also his last. Gallagher died June 14, 1995, from complications following a liver transplant. He was 47.
“BBC Sessions” (1999)
Four years elapsed before Gallagher’s Capo label came back into action, ushered in with the release of “BBC Sessions,” a two-disc set that wrapped up 10 highlights from the five live broadcasts he recorded during the 1970s, plus 12 more from his various BBC studio sessions during that same period.
It is by no means complete; between his first session in May 1971 and his last in July 1974, Gallagher recorded no fewer than 38 tracks at the BBC’s various studios. Coupled with the full live performances (the earliest recorded in August 1971), a stellar Rory At The Beeb box is dying to be compiled.
“Wheels Within Wheels” (2003)
This all-acoustic compilation draws material from throughout Gallagher’s career, and draws in some special guests, as well.
“Live at ROCKPALAST” 1976- 1990 (DVD) (2004)
This set includes no fewer than six performances from the German TV series, ranging from a blistering outing in the wake of “Calling Card” to a sometimes melancholy set from the “Fresh Evidence” days.
“Live at Montreux: The Definitive Collection” (2006)
The double DVD features highlights of Gallagher’s appearances at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival between 1975 and 1994. From “Tatto’d Lady” to “Walking Blues,” there are two discs bursting with 40 performances that show the evolution of the musician.
“The Beat Club Sessions” (2010)
Three separate appearances on German television’s “Beat Club,” recorded between 1971-1972, and available both on CD and as bonus material appended to the “Ghost Blues” documentary DVD.