By CHRISTOPHER TREACY
Creatively speaking, Vanilla Fudge knew precisely what they were doing. They had a plan.
The quartet will always be remembered for their mind-bending reading of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” originally made famous by The Supremes. The track epitomizes their strength in laying bare the emotional core of pop songs that’d previously gotten diluted in popular, AM-radio-friendly treatments.
“There was a fad around that time, particularly throughout New York City and Long Island,” said revered drummer Carmine Appice over the phone from Manhattan, preparing for a run of shows that brings Vanilla Fudge to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Mass., on Saturday, November 16, with special guest Joe Merrick. (Purchase tickets HERE).
“We had The Vagrants with Leslie West, The Hassles with Billy Joel, The Rich Kids… a whole scene was going on around the concept of what were called ‘production numbers.’ It involved taking the original hit version of a song, slowing it down and making it more dramatic by changing the stage lighting and shifting the overall dynamic. We grabbed onto an additional aspect of that by looking at the lyrics. What do the words say? We created an atmosphere with that. These were songs with what I call ‘hurtin’ lyrics’ — mostly about love, and not all positive and upbeat sentiments. On the radio, however, it’d be an upbeat song with these sad lyrics. So, Vanilla Fudge sought to put the drama back into these songs.”
It makes total sense. While the needling repetition of a single guitar note perpetuates a sense of anxiety in The Supremes’ 1966 version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the signature Motown stomp remains front and center, carrying the listener away from the protagonist’s headspace and onto the dance floor. Vanilla Fudge’s version, on the other hand, portrays the subject as if they’re under a crushing emotional weight. The way that keyboardist Mark Stein’s eerie organ notes suddenly intersect with Appice’s cracking snare and crashing cymbal is startling as hell. And then, of course, there’s the flipped gender script from the pop version. It’s overwrought, it’s outrageous and — to this day — it works.
“We cut that song in one take,” Appice recalled. “We did it in mono. Everything was recorded all at once. It’s seven-and-a-half minutes, and it totally changed how people thought of the song. We did something similar with songs by The Impressions, The Beatles, many others. We’d set them in a churchy atmosphere, almost a lonely, cemetery vibe. We had a pattern with the vocals where Mark would start, then each of us would get added in and build it up to a frenzy.”
Unfortunately, producer George “Shadow” Morton derailed the band’s creative plan. Morton eschewed the musical nuances of their debut in favor of far-flung concepts for the follow-up, 1968’s The Beat Goes On, which he made from a hodgepodge of historical spoken word segments and (mostly) snippets of actual songs. What was once outrageous now seemed indulgent. While the album initially charted well on the strength of its predecessor, Appice blames it for not allowing the band to reach the next level of an otherwise promising career.
Unlike countless underdog albums with which artists have made peace in hindsight, The Beat Goes On will not become a source of late-breaking pride for Vanilla Fudge.
“If it was going to happen at all, that should’ve been, like, our eighth album,” Appice said with a chuckle. “There we were with a big success, and we were stupid about it. We didn’t know any better. Sgt Pepper was big, but that was all music, whereas this was almost all talking! FM stations were just beginning, experimenting with the format, and they’d sometimes play entire albums. Folks were calling up and asking them to take it off because it was depressing.”
Appice says that while they had other, better songs in the can already, Morton seemed determined to steer the album into the ground.
“If we’d had another hit single, it would have set a better foundation for us,” he said. “Instead, we had to rush in and do something quickly to save our asses, which turned into Renaissance, which had other production issues — no clarity, it was bottom-heavy… wasn’t what it should have been. Near the Beginning, which we produced ourselves, was much better. The album did well, and we got to go on Ed Sullivan again.”
It wasn’t enough to keep Vanilla Fudge from imploding in 1970, though they’ve reunited multiple times since. And if it wasn’t clear then, it certainly is now: the band’s considered highly influential. They hung out with Hendrix, shared stages with Led Zeppelin, and are cited as an inspiration by members of Deep Purple, Styx and Yes, among others. The hindsight accolades for helping bridge the gap from psychedelia to something harder are a large part of the Vanilla Fudge legacy.
Meanwhile, Appice’s drumming prowess has kept him perpetually busy. He credits quality management for finding ways to make his ideas materialize, particularly in the ’80s. His diversified career includes a wildly successful series of drum instruction books (the first of which he published in 1972), drumming clinics, and ‘Drum War’ events with his brother, Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath). He co-founded the bands Cactus, Blue Murder, King Cobra, and a supergroup, Beck, Bogert, and Appice. He had a fruitful creative partnership with Rod Stewart, recording, touring, and co-writing the hits “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Young Turks.” He also toured behind Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon album in 1983, but Sharon Osbourne fired him (the details are in Appice’s 2016 book, Stick It). Along the way, in addition to other solo projects, he produced a series of Guitar Zeus releases, which feature him playing drums with a host of world-renowned guitarists, from Queen’s Brian May to Yngwie Malmsteen to Ted Nugent. It’s an impressive resume.
Vanilla Fudge is currently working on a new collection of all Supremes songs, including a cover of “Stop! In the Name of Love,” which Appice says will feature original bassist Tim Bogert, (Pete Bremy has played bass in Vanilla Fudge for over a decade alongside originals Stein, Appice, and lead guitarist, Vince Martell). It will be their second project to pull material from one artist in particular, the first being an all Led Zeppelin set entitled Out Through the In Door, from 2007.
With new management, a new stage setup, and the seeds of a campaign for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consideration, the quartet seems determined to make the most of its stake in rock history.
“Now, just like back then, there’s no other band quite like Vanilla Fudge,” he said. “No other band has the same dynamics combined with the quality of players. It’s enabled us to stick around. In ’67, we were also lucky. We came at the right time; everything was experimental, folks were finding new ways of playing rock, blending it with jazz and improvising, pioneering new drum sounds… I helped take that to the next level. I’m one of the only drummers left from that era.”
The Narrows Center is located at 16 Anawan Street in Fall River, Mass. Tickets to this show can be purchased online by clicking HERE or by calling the box office at 508-324-1926. To purchase tickets in person, box office hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 12 noon to 5 p.m.