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Monsters of rock and successors to CREAM’s power-chord crown, the mighty MOUNTAIN had all the elements to take hard and heavy metal into a new decade, but mirroring their British progenitors, obstacles and self-indulgence also got in their way; a side-and-a-half, 31-minute `Nantucket Sleighride’ (from double live set `Twin Peaks’), a prime example of vinyl excess. While core names Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi and original drummer Norman D. Smart didn’t quite roll off the tongue as much as Messrs CLAPTON, BRUCE and BAKER, Americans MOUNTAIN still had a large say in sculpting hard-rock into the grooves of the late 60s/early 70s landscape; adding Steve Knight (on keyboards), the quartet performed at the legendary Woodstock Festival, blasting the hippie fraternity with their warp-factor blues/sludge-metal.
Formed in Long Island just prior to that prestigious fourth gig in August ‘69, the group name stemmed from the rather big-boned LESLIE WEST (born Leslie Weinstein, October 22, 1945), a vocalist/guitarist who led out garage/R&B combo, The VAGRANTS, prior to releasing his solo album, poignantly-titled MOUNTAIN (1969) {*6}. Produced by Bronx-born co-scribe Felix Pappalardi (who also contributed bass and keyboards) and augmented by drummer N.D. Smart (ex-REMAINS), the reception given to the set for tracks such as `Blood Of The Sun’, `Long Red’ and `This Wheel’s On Fire’’ (the DYLAN song), encouraged the trio to take the sessions further into a bona fide band. Pappalardi was a seasoned campaigner in the world of rock and folk music, working with The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL, JOAN BAEZ, The YOUNGBLOODS et al, as well as helping star turns CREAM to achieve greatness in their ground-breaking `Disraeli Gears’ and `Wheels Of Fire’ LPs; he first came into contact with the girth-some West after landing the job of producing some sales-worthy product by the said Vagrants. Impressed by West’s guitar prowess, the natural next move was for the pair to hook up and make MOUNTAIN a full-time concern, although Smart moved aside for Corky Laing and keyboard addition Steve Knight.
Bolstered by the unlikeliest of near Top 20 entries, `Mississippi Queen’, parent album CLIMBLING! (1970) {*8} did exactly what it said on the tin when unleashed into the lists that spring by Windfall Records. In many respects a worthy contender to capture any CREAM refugees, many of the tracks penned by Pappalardi and lyricist wife Gail Collins, plus one a leftover by JACK BRUCE and PETE BROWN: `Theme For An Imaginary Western’. Other hard-rock highlights, `Never In My Life’, `Silver Paper’ and `For Yasgur’s Farm’ (their tribute to “Woodstock”), West toned down their tour de force brawn by way of the Eastern-styled self-penned acoustic number, `To My Friend’.
In awe of Essex whalemen, 1971’s NANTUCKET SLEIGHRIDE {*7} was another sizeable Stateside success, its dense title track edit (`Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)’) – about one 19th century sailor in particular – was subsequently tapped as the theme tune for ITV’s long-running political series Weekend World. Starting off as a WISHBONE ASH-like folk-rock ballad before switching back and forth to a classically-taut, sonic-surge, blood-rush-to-the-head-band, organist Knight excelled on every level. In tribute to a certain James Marshall HENDRIX, `Tired Angels (To J.M.H.)’, MOUNTAIN dug their heels in deep muddy waters for `Don’t Look Around’, `The Great Train Robbery’ and the swampy minor hit, `The Animal Trainer And The Toad’.
A third Top 40 album, FLOWERS OF EVIL (also 1971) {*6}, didn’t fare so well critically; the rather predictable keyboard-dominated riff overkill beginning to grate, with the exception of the short instrumental interlude, `King’s Chorale’. A set 50 minutes in total, split into a studio side also featuring Pappalardi and Collins’ monumental `Crossroader’, the trippy `Pride and Passion’ and the folky `One Last Cold Kiss’ (the opening title track was West and Pappa’s collaboration with David Rea), the record fell apart on the live and exhaustive jam session that was entitled `Dream Sequence’. A medley of epic percussive proportions lasting a “good” 24 minutes and integrating a sprawling take of CHUCK BERRY’s `Roll Over Beethoven’, the word self-indulgence didn’t come close; add to that an encore version of `Mississippi Queen’ and MOUNTAIN were fast sliding down the hill.
Over the top and running on empty, the MOUNTAIN men – featuring Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi (as depicted on the sleeve) – came up with the brainwave to unleash further concert tracks under the title LIVE: THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER {*5}, the following spring. Coinciding with the band’s break-up, “Woodstock ‘69” documents `Long Red’ and `Waiting To Take You Away’, opened for the more up-to-date takes of the CREAM-like `Crossroader’ and the 17-minute `Nantucket Sleighride’. Mysteriously, the LP fared better in the UK, where it almost reached Top 20 status. Wisely perhaps, a heroin-addicted Pappalardi opted to resume production work and the first incarnation of MOUNTAIN was no more.
Meanwhile, along with former CREAM vocalist/bassist Jack B and dedicated drummer Corky, Leslie reconvened activities as WEST, BRUCE & LAING. The tsunami-styled power trio secured a deal at Columbia, achieving notable success with their Top 30 debut album, WHY DONTCHA (1972) {*6}. Not unlike the BLIND FAITH alumni a few years back or the rival BECK, BOGERT & APPICE configuration, the meeting of MOUNTAIN and their progenitors CREAM – including PETE BROWN on lyrics! – was a creative tour de force, while a delve back into pure blues resulted in a re-vamp of EDDIE BOYD’s `Third Degree’. A fantasy-league dream-band for hard-rock fans or a recurring nightmare of excess for others, there was plenty drama and swagger to sink one’s teeth into; `The Doctor’, `Pollution Woman’ and the flop-single title track, arguably the best on show.
Plenty more in the tank, sophomore set WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON (1973) {*6} had softer moments in the wintry `November Song’, but overall, the Andy Johns production or the Joe Petagno comic artwork couldn’t save the hard-rock-by-numbers `Scotch Crotch’, `Rock’n’Roll Machine’ and flop 45, `Dirty Shoes’. Signing off with LIVE ‘N’ KICKIN’ (1974) {*4}, ideas were thin on the ground as WB&L careered through heavyweights `Play With Fire’ (from The ROLLING STONES) and `Politician’ (the CREAM of the crop).
As magma appeared to be cooling off and clearing from the summit, a reunified MOUNTAIN rose again via an album recorded at Konenkin Hall in Osaka, Japan on August 30, 1973: TWIN PEAKS (1974) {*5}. The 4-piece format reinstated when West and Pappalardi enlisted drummer Allan Schwartzberg and guitarist/organist Bob Mann, the double-LP was indeed an experience to behold. But for the wrong reasons. If fans of MOUNTAIN, and hard-rock acolytes in general, had been taken aback by the previous “roadkill” excursion of `Nantucket…’, well, they could well’ve been forgiven for not immediately switching to disc 2 for the marathon, death-defying conclusion of the said track, which was spun out at exactly 31:49 minutes. On reflection, a decent double-set of songs that captured MOUNTAIN at their best (and worst!), one could not fault worthy, relatively “bite-size” attempts of their greatest hits.
Worryingly and still reeling from the eruption caused in the wake of bad reviews, subsequent studio set, AVALANCHE (1974) {*5}, was also met with a muted response; despite the return of Laing and introduction of rhythm guitarist David Perry. Opening with a greasy, gun-slinging version of the JERRY LEE LEWIS hit, `Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ (a raw re-working of The ROLLING STONES’ `(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ completing side one), the album bubbled under the Top 100 as MOUNTAIN fell by the wayside yet again.
In the aftermath, PAPPALARDI subsequently released two LPs for A&M Records: `Felix Pappalardi & Creation’ (1976) and `Don’t Worry, Ma’ (1979), before retiring, partially deaf, to Japan.
LESLIE WEST, meanwhile, had already relinquished his second solo set; the self-deprecating, almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-referenced THE GREAT FATSBY (1975) {*6}. Coming across as something akin to FRANKIE MILLER or PAUL RODGERS (Les covered FREE’s `Little Bit Of Love’ and even ANDY FRASER’s `Doctor Love’), the record was a definitive break from anything MOUNTAIN-ous, whereas his instrumental `E.S.P.’ was undermined by re-hashes of `House Of The Rising Sun’, `Honky Tonk Women’, `High Roller’ and `If I Were A Carpenter’.
The eponymously-titled THE LESLIE WEST BAND (1976) {*6}, was of similar ilk, the man in the middle (of Corky Laing, Ken Ascher, Don Kretmer and Mick Jones) treading tried-and-tested terrain on the freestyling of LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Dear Prudence’, The ANIMALS hit `We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and guitarist Mick’s pre-FOREIGNER contribution, `Singapore Sling’. A time-out was called therein.
Another MOUNTAIN re-formation was on the cards in 1981 (instigated by West, Laing and Scotsman MILLER ANDERSON), however, the project was stunted when overshadowed by the death of Felix, shot dead in their East Side Manhattan apartment on April 17, 1983 by his wife, Gail (Collins) Pappalardi. Claiming it was an accident and charges downscaled from second-degree murder to a lesser criminally negligent homicide, she was released on parole after only serving 16 months; she later moved to Ajijic in Mexico and lived a reclusive life until she passed away of cancer on December 6, 2013.
Reconvening in 1984, in order to pay tribute to Felix, seasoned hired-hand bassist Mark Clarke (ex-URIAH HEEP, ex-COLOSSEUM, ex-RAINBOW, et al) superseded Miller on MOUNTAIN’s Scotti Brothers-endorsed “comeback” LP, GO FOR YOUR LIFE (1985) {*4}. Clocking in at only a half-hour, this was hard-rock for the arena-rock contingent; fist-pumping and derivatively un-PC on the likes of `She Loves Her Rock (And She Loves It Hard)’, `Makin’ It In Your Car’ and others of that ilk.
Buried under an avalanche of criticism, MOUNTAIN activities were scaled down again while LESLIE WEST tried in vain to resurrect his somewhat patchy solo career. Co-credited as a “Leslie, Jack & Joe” recording (alongside buddy JACK BRUCE and ex-TWISTED SISTER drummer Joe Franco), THEME (1988) {*4} was a part retrospective set of songs, showcasing a splendid reading of `Theme For An Imaginary Western’, and gritty but gruelling renditions of JIMI HENDRIX’s `Red House’, WILLIE DIXON’s `Spoonful’ and a closing instrumental cover of `Love Me Tender’.
Although still far from his best, 1986’s hard-biting ALLIGATOR {*5}, released belatedly, followed on from his live participation in “Night Of The Guitar” ’89, and kept WEST in contention as one of rock music’s top axemen. On a mission to come up with some key karaoke moments in the world of heavy rock, the legend of Leslie gave something of a dusting down to the likes of `I Put A Spell On You’ (SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS), `The Stealer’ (FREE), `Whiskey’ (KENNY LOGGINS) – featuring guest bassist STANLEY CLARKE – `Dream Lover’ (BOBBY DARIN), and a medley of Greig’s `Hall Of The Mountain King’ and Ernest Gold’s filmic `Theme From Exodus’.
To counteract on a near-simultaneous solo LIVE! (1993) {*6} set of top Mountain cuts – featuring Richie “The Bat” Scarlet (bass) and Paul Beretta (drums), it’d be a slim-line West that sported flash attire on the sleeve of his DODGIN’ THE DIRT (1993) {*6}, an ambitious studio set that roped in Steve Hunter (rhythm guitar & dobro), Randy Coven (bass) and Kevin Neal (drums). Recorded in Europe where his popularity seemed in-demand, a handful of songs that caught the eye were his re-treads of PROCOL HARUM’s `Whiskey Train’, BILLY JOEL’s `New York State Of Mind’, VAN MORRISON’s `Wasted Years’, `Cross Cut Saw’ and the aforesaid `Red House’.
West, Laing and Clarke’s MOUNTAIN were again summoning the gods on yet another comeback studio set, MAN’S WORLD (1996) {*5}, a back-to-basics hard-rock document augmented by producer/auxiliary songwriter/session player Eddie Black. But for the uncompromising cover of the JAMES BROWN title piece, it was all down to the stewarding of the tight-knit alumni.
Intermittent albums from LESLIE WEST (AS PHAT AS IT GETS (1999) {*6}) and MOUNTAIN (MYSTIC FIRE (2002) {*4}), were hardly returns to the hoary greatness of old, but decent showcases for LW’s still-smoking guitar playing. On both sets, there’d been a wide-ranging retrospective of tracks plucked from just about every genre, although his effervescent band had swapped Clarke for a younger, unknown entity, Chuck Hearne.
As the MOUNTAIN side of Leslie’s workload dissipated, heralding only one further full-set trip to toast the songs of hero DYLAN: MASTERS OF WAR (2007) {*6}, a trio of LESLIE WEST albums for Blues Bureau had previously surfaced. With a genre he knew only too well, the guitar king found a way to meet the Devil’s music half-way on covers sets BLUES TO DIE FOR (2003) {*5}, GOT BLOOZE (2005) {*6} and BLUE ME (2006) {*5}.
A deal on the widely-distributed Netherlands based imprint, Provogue (home to JOE BONAMASSA, WALTER TROUT, GOV’T MULE, et al), WEST’s twilight years looked everso more promising. Albums such as 2011’s first-off-the-block UNUSUAL SUSPECTS {*7} helped fulfil the dreams of loyal followers by performing alongside axemen SLASH, ZAKK WYLDE, BILLY GIBBONS, STEVE LUKATHER and the aforementioned BONAMASSA on several cues.
In reference to his debut solo release of ’69 or, indeed, his recent lower-right-leg amputation (from diabetes), STILL CLIMBING (2013) {*6} was in a similar vein to his previous effort; this time with JOHNNY WINTER (soon-to-be R.I.P.), Mark TREMONTI, Dee Snider, JONNY LANG and the introduction of Dylan Rose coming up trumps.
2015’s SOUNDCHECK {*6} saw the 70-year-old author tracks with his new wife Jennifer West-Weinstein (26 years his junior), but more importantly combine with PETER FRAMPTON (on `You Are My Sunshine’), BONNIE BRAMLETT and BRIAN MAY (on `Going Down’) and Ariela Pizza (on BEN E. KING’s `Stand By Me’); the addendum piece was the fitting homage to `Spoonful’, performed in 1988 with JACK BRUCE and Joe Franco.
Although in a motorised wheel-chair, LESLIE WEST still plays the circuit, playing the blues, R&B, hard-rock or just about anything he wishes – there’s just no moving the MOUNTAIN.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016

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