If you want to know where Van Halen "nicked" their sound, all you have to do is crank the first two Montrose records: the self-titled debut from 1973 and the following year's less impressive but still pretty damn rocking Paper Money. The template is all right there: streamlined yet ridiculously manic boogie, oddball humor that makes little syntactical sense, blown-out party anthems that are more arty than they initially lead you to believe, inscrutable slices of post- Jimi Hendrix psychedelic space jamming, and, most important, a total badass on guitar whose solos and riffage screamed in ways -- cold, precise, jagged and laser-like, all predicting Eddie Van Halen -- that were utterly unique and novel.
The fact that this guitarist -- the mercurial Ronnie Montrose, who succumbed to prostate cancer on March 3 -- has become something of a minor character in the annals of hard rock history is both puzzling and straight-up lame. It's a damn shame, but you're not going to find any Montrose jams -- not even the groover "Bad Motor Scooter" (yes, Soundgarden are fans) or comet-blazing "Space Station No. 5" -- in the songs lists for either Rock Band or Guitar Hero. This, despite the fact that the group's mid-1970s sound served as the bridge over which hard rock traveled from the earthy and raw (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cactus, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac) to the sleek and refined (Van Halen, Boston, Aerosmith). Look at it this way. There a good reason why Eddie asked Sammy "The Red Rocker" Hagar to replace the (totally irreplaceable) Diamond Dave: Because the dude was in effin' Montrose, man.
Part of this under-appreciation is Montrose's own fault. Much like perpetual weirdo Jeff Beck, a definite influence, he left a massive imprint on hard rock, but then, in the late 1970s, retreated to the music's fringes, where he was content to tinker with various permutations of fusion and arty instrumental rock without the stress of having to churn out platinum blockbusters every time he entered the studio. But again, he was way ahead of the curve in this regard. Both his solo output and his probing work with the ensemble Gamma helped pave the way for the Joe Satriani's and Steve Vai's of the world, wailing virtuosos who achieved considerable success without having to write conventional pop songs.
The most overlooked aspect of the guitarist's long career is what he did before putting together Montrose. Amazingly enough, the guy was a true seasoned veteran by 1973. Beginning in the late 1960s, he did session work for an insane number of high-profile rockers, singer-songwriters, jazzbos and pop stars, many of whom belonged to Warner Bros. and Reprise's vaunted stable of artists. He worked with Van Morrison, The Beau Brummels, Boz Scaggs, Herbie Hancock, Gary Wright and even soft-rock sweetheart Nicolette Larson. On top of all this, he was the hired gun in the line-up of The Edgar Winter Group that recorded 1972's They Only Come Out at Night. For all you young folk, that's the record with the classic-rock standards "Free Ride" and "Frankenstein."
R.I.P. Ronnie. And may you rock the heavens.