By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
TED NUGENT – PENETRATOR (1984)
The recent passing of vocalist Brian Howe made me want to seek out the one bit of his discography that I had never heard before. This was an idea easier said than done however. The Ted Nugent album Penetrator was Howe’s first US gig and judging by what I’ve read online, this album is not looked upon all that fondly by the press or Ted Nugent’s fanbase. Making matters worse, when I tried to find a CD edition of the album online, it seemed I would have to give up an arm or a leg to afford the asking prices.
But the day was saved by my friend Roger. He arranged to drop off his cassette copy of the album in my mailbox (social distancing, don’t you know) so that I could listen to it.
I know you might wonder why I’ve never heard this album before now. Much like a lot of what I’m going to write about this release, I find myself going a bit against the grain when it comes to Ted Nugent. The truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t say that I’m all that much of a fan. Sure, I like the stuff you hear on the radio like “Stranglehold”, “Free For All”, “Wango Tango” and “Cat Scratch Fever”. I even liked the title track to the Little Miss Dangerous album. But I’ve never once felt the need to buy any of his solo music. In fact, the only material I own that features Ted Nugent are the two Damn Yankees albums.
The fact that I’m a huge fan of Brian Howe’s voice compelled me to finally listen to this album and while the research I did for this article suggests that it isn’t all that good and suffers from trying to sound like everything else coming out in the mid 1980’s and not quite getting there, I found that I kind of liked the Penetrator album. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by that feeling though. So often I hate stuff other people like and then when everyone is hating on something, it turns out that I like it. I guess that’s just a bit of my contrarian nature coming through.
I will admit that the album does sound a little dated. It is pretty easy to realize that it was released in the 1980’s. It has “that” sound which marks the era. But from the start, there’s a wildly reckless energy to a lot of the songs.
That sense of the energetic starts right at the top with “Tied Up In Love”. Given Nugent’s predilection for sex, it is no surprise that most of the material could be seen as having plenty of double entendres. But the smoking hot guitar and Howe’s vocals keep this song rocking from start to finish.
The first four songs on Side One of the album are all pretty fast-paced. I really liked the solo on “(Where Do You) Draw The Line” but I thought the keyboards through the song off a bit. That song was written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, which made me chuckle to think of the guy who sings balladry like “Heaven” having one of his compositions performed by the Motor City Madman. I also liked the solo in the expressively up-tempo “Don’t You Want My Love”. Say whatever you want about Ted Nugent, the man can shred his butt off on the guitar.
I think my favorite song on Side One might just be the rocker “Knockin’ At Your Door” which was written by Andy Fraser, the bassist for Free. I don’t know what it was but this was just a really cool track to me.
The closing song on the first side features a slightly slower pace as they seem to be going for a bigger sense of the dramatic. The keyboards (from Billy Squier’s Alan St. Jon) heavily influence the song here.
Brian Howe’s vocals graced the tracks on Side One, but when you flip the tape over you are immediately hit in the face as Ted himself once again steps up to the mike. You might tend to forget that you are listening to a Ted Nugent album when it is someone else singing the lyrics. But then Ted’s vocals kick in and you remember it’s “Uncle Ted’s” world and we’re all just witnesses to it.
While the Side Two opener “Thunder Thighs” pushes right against the line that marks when a song crosses over into a comedic self-parody, the maniacal guitar playing and ballsy vocal take elevate this song into a kind of interesting full-blown rocker. There is absolutely no sense of subtlety here but I have to admit that as the song played through, I didn’t care.
I did care more about the song “Blame It On The Night” though. Brian Howe was back on vocals for this song but it didn’t quite work for me because I thought the track could’ve done without the keyboards in the mix. That could just be me, but I thought it held the song back from reaching for what could’ve made it a potentially better song.
I loved the down and dirty grind of “No Man’s Land” and the self-congratulatory nature of the blazing “Lean Mean R&R Machine”. Both of the songs are flat out rockers and I thought they came out pretty damn fantastic.
And in a bit of a reversal, there was some restraint and subtlety on the album’s closing song “Take Me Home”. It is the only song that could legitimately be considered a ballad. While the tempo does increase a bit during the course of the song, it really does surprise that you. The funny thing is I went looking for the official lyrics only to find that none of the online lyric websites seems to have them. A few of them simply say “We’re sorry but the artist has decided not to disclose the lyrics for this song”. I don’t know if there’s some kind of story behind that decision or not but given the lyrics that are online for some of Nugent’s other songs, it was a bit amusing.
My entire reason for wanting to hear this album was because Brian Howe sang the majority of the songs on it. As I stated when I wrote about the Bad Company album Holy Water, I’m a huge fan of his voice. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect to find when I started listening to Penetrator given my less than full-throated support for Ted Nugent’s career. I know that the prevailing opinion about this album seems to veer towards being overwhelmingly negative, but Howe’s vocals and the fantastic music from Ted and company gave me a different opinion.
After listening to this album, even with it’s hiccups, I found the album to be surprisingly enjoyable. You could’ve probably knocked me over with a feather when I realized that fact. Now if I can just find myself a copy of my own that doesn’t require me to sell off a body part to afford it.
NOTES OF INTEREST: The album and the tour for it were the beginning and end of Brian Howe’s time with Ted Nugent. According to Howe’s Wikipedia page, a dispute over the lack of writing credits on the album (The song “Tied Up In Love” is specified) and financial matters led to his departure.
The drums on Penetrator were performed by Billy Squier drummer Bobby Chouinard who also played with Cher, Alice Cooper and Peter Wolf amongst his credits. Peter Wolf is credited on the Penetrator album as providing percussion and sequencing. The artwork was done by noted fantasy artist Boris Vallejo.
While I’ve never seen Ted Nugent in a solo concert, I did see him live as a part of Damn Yankees when they toured for their self-titled debut album. I remember being pretty impressed by his playing then. I wrote about that album for a previous article in The Cassette Chronicles series.