Albums In My Collection
– I’m Just A Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer
– Good Time Warrior
– Lucifer’s Friend
– Mean Machine
– Mind Exploding
– Sneak Me In
– Sumo Grip
– Too Late To Hate
– Where The Groupies Killed The Blues
Lucifer’s Friend is probably one of the most unique bands in rock’s history, seeing that, early in their career, they kept altering their style with each new album.
Formed in Germany back in 1970, they blasted onto the scene with their debut Lucifer’s Friend album, which made quite a few future metal-heads sit up and take notice (I certainly did when I first heard the album a few years later). The album featured wickedly heavy guitar and Hammond organ, driving rhythms, and a wide-ranged English singer by the name of John Lawton who possessed an instantly recognizable voice and could belt out the tunes (including producing killer screams) in a style similar to both Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) and Dave Byron (Uriah Heep). And like those other singers, I consider John Lawton one of my favorite rock singers of all time. On this album, the band chose to also deliver eight tracks in the style of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, only with darker, more eerie undertones (probably to fit the name of the band and to match the bloody, sinister-looking cover featuring their hook-handed mascot…a cover that gave me nightmares, therefore I loved it, of course). To my mind, this is probably one of the best early metal albums in history, rivaling Purple’s In Rock and Heep’s Look At Yourself albums, and today, it’s considered a classic Krautrock album. It’s probably one of the best albums I bought in my earliest days of collecting records (and at full import price) way back in the 70s. A perfect 5-Star affair if I’ve ever heard one! Unfortunately, the band never produced another album with the exact same sound.
Instead, they decided to make the first of many changes to come when, in 1972, they released their second album, Where The Groupies Killed The Blues. Here, the band abandoned the Deep Purple/Uriah Heep Hammond-heavy metal of their debut in favor of tunes with more complicated arrangements, the addition of piano & synths, acoustic guitar, strings, etc. and many of the tracks have serious Progressive-Rock tendencies. The abrupt change in sound was jarring to many listeners, including myself, but the album was quite good nevertheless, and although it took some getting used to, it eventually grew on me.
The third album a year later saw yet another change in style. I’m Just A Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer is (for the most part) less complex, more straight-forward hard rock on many tracks, some jazzy influences on others, and a few off-the-wall songs tossed in that definitely lean toward Prog-Rock.
Then, in 1974, the band made the biggest, most jarring change in style yet. The Banquet album is a full-out foray into Jazz-Rock territory with the use of a brass section throughout. Hell, it’s basically Lucifer’s Friend meets Blood, Sweat & Tears. To be honest, I hated the album at the time. The cover was so misleading, showing the band, all dressed in black with their hook-handed mascot nearby, sitting at a banquet table in a gloomy Dracula-like castle, so I fully expected a return to the sound of the cherished debut album, of which I was still so enamored. Therefore, this foray into Jazz-Rock was a total shock to the system (and to my record needle) and everything just rubbed me the wrong way. Indeed, it took me three decades of letting the album sit on the shelf before I once again dared to give it another listen. And what do you think happened? I’ll be damned, but I actually loved it. Indeed, it’s now one of my favorite albums by the band, mostly due to two specific tracks: “Spanish Galleon” and “Sorrow,” both of the songs surpassing the eleven-minute mark and being absolutely the best vocal performances John Lawton ever delivered on vinyl. The rest of the band shines through also, with the energetic instrumentation, complex arrangements, and wickedly wild horn section just adding to the treat.
Then in 1976, the band’s next album Mind Exploding appeared. Thankfully, I remembered thinking at the time, it was yet another shift in style, this time a mixture of Heavy Rock with Jazz-Rock again included on several tracks, and with enough complicated arrangements so that it could probably be semi-classified as Prog-Rock, at least on a handful of tracks. This album grabbed me immediately, and it still remains another huge favorite of mine.
Shortly afterward, something unthinkable happened in the Rock World. Uriah Heep fired their original, long-time singer Dave Byron. But, no shock to me, they offered the job of replacing him to John Lawton. I felt him the perfect choice for Heep, since John’s voice could sound eerily similar to Dave Byron’s. But how would Lawton leaving Lucifer’s Friend affect the band? Would they continue?
Thankfully, they did, and yes, you guessed it, they had another change in style. For the albums Good Time Warrior (1978) and Sneak Me In (1980), the band hired singer Mike Starrs (Colosseum II), who had a voice occasionally similar to John Lawton’s, so that didn’t seem too troubling for me. And for once, the band adopted a similar style two albums in a row, this one more Hard Rock with AOR. And although these albums typically get rated low at various music-review websites, I have no problem with them. In fact, Sneak Me In is quite commendable in my eyes, with many of the songs on offer having memorable melodies. And on both albums, the musicians gave solid performances. Therefore, two decent albums that never got the plaudits they deserved.
Then, a year later, John Lawton left Uriah Heep, and where did he go? Sure enough, he returned to Lucifer’s Friend, replacing Mike Starrs, and once again the band altered their sound. On Mean Machine (1981) they returned with a harder rocking album again, not nearly as heavy as their debut release, but the heaviest album they’d produced in more than a decade. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t well-received and, eventually, the band called it quits. Temporarily, of course.
In 1994, I was shocked to learn of a brand new album from the band, this one named Sumo Grip (and released under the name Lucifer’s Friend II). And with good reason, since several of the long-standing musicians didn’t return for the reunion. John Lawton, however, did return, lending his vocal genius to the tracks, this time more in an lighter, AOR vein. Although the album is quite decent in some respects, I truly find it their weakest work of all. And that seemed to be the end of the band again.
I’ll be damned, but in 2015, twenty-one years after that last album, the band has once again reformed, releasing a “best of” compilation album Awakening, which actually included four newly recorded tracks featuring John Lawton behind the microphone and a return to the Hard Rock style.
And blessing of all blessings, in 2016, a brand new, full-length album called Too Late to Hate emerged, with the band’s sound falling stylistically somewhere between the magnificent debut album and Mean Machine, Hard Rock bordering on Heavy Metal. In truth, this is one of Lucifer’s Friend’s strongest efforts since the early days, and it immediately found a place for itself among the Top 5 of my all-time favorites within the band’s catalogue of releases. Lawton’s voice is still recognizable, pristine, and emotionally charged, although he no longer shoots for the ultra-high notes, which is understandable considering his maturity, while the band’s instrumentation is still amazing, with the new keyboardist standing out as he employs a few unorthodox synth backgrounds that bring to mind the often-strange playing style of the great Colin Towns (ex-Gillan keyboardist). And on the majority of the twelve tracks, not only do the catchy melody lines stick in your head, but the band comes across as a fully revitalized and thriving force, still powerful and hungry to deliver more. Highly enjoyable!
Anyway, the band has been nothing if not experimental and diverse throughout its lengthy and patchy career. Some of their albums remain on my “best albums of all-time list” and I, for one, hope they stick around a while. But now one can only wonder if the band will release new material in future years. And if so, the most vital question remains…in what style will it be? Knowing the band’s unique history all too well, I wouldn’t even want to venture a guess.