Power Booster to the People


In 1970, whilst in my first garage band, I bought a battery-loaded aluminum box—about the size of a cigarette pack—called a Linear Power Booster. After you plugged it into your guitar amp, you turned its one black Bakelite knob all the way to the right, and presto! What was once a sedate country-and-blues combo fit only for playing Creedence Clearwater Revival jingles was transformed into a nitro-burning funny-car hard rock machine. It was like pouring a quart of ethanol and ether mix into the gas tank of the family’s Corvair. While the device greatly increased the odds of an ugly explosion, it made ripping off licks from Live at Leeds child’s play. It was “unsafe at any speed”: bad in motor vehicles, perhaps, but exactly the point in nascent heavy metal.

And this phenomenon transpired, more or less the same way, in garages worldwide around the same time. Some people were even able to derive a professional living from the result. Budgie was one such band. Heavier Than Air is a collection of live recordings, mostly from 1971 and ’72, that dip heavily into the river of the Linear Power Booster. The guitarist sounds like he’s working the guillotine on “In the Grip of a Tyrefitter’s Hand,” and looks like it, too. His leather trousers are hiked so far up his chest he appears ready for a day’s work dodging gouts of blood while engaged in the butchering of chickens.

“We were riff-mad,” beamishly comments bassist Burke Shelley in the liner notes. There’s no room for argument. Budgie’s “Hot as a Docker’s Armpit” and “Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman” risked the ludicrous for the sake of the eight-minute naked stomp. Live, the songs are even more devolved and burning than the studio originals from ’72. The drummer turns over the beat, breaks into calypsos; the guitarist shovels magma as fast as the audience can swallow. The singer shrieks along to the lead breaks, sounding like an air-raid siren when necessary. Brilliant stuff, which begs the questions in 2000: Who signed these guys in 1970? And when were they run out of the modern music industry?

Similar goings-on could be heard in Germany circa 1972. Sound archaeological evidence is presented in the Very Best of . . . Guru Guru box set. A power trio who sounded like they threw it down directly to tape, Guru Guru had little need for a “vocalist” and instead stuck mostly to the business of putting Yardbirds riffs in front of firing squads.

Nothing here prior to 1974 seems less than six minutes of the drummer keeping things rocking while the bass player and guitarist make their amps groan and sweat under the burden. It reaches a climax on “Der ElectroLurch,” which is supposedly about an electric salamander living in the wires. If computer viruses needed an official song, “Der ElectroLurch” would be the one they would choose.

Guru Guru deteriorated precipitously after 1974, becoming preoccupied with art, frictionless Mahavishnu-isms, and drumming fetishes. But that’s all confined to the second CD, which you can think of as the “bonus” or “free” disc. Give it as a gift to someone who holds the mistaken belief that you like them.

A common feature of this stuff is that if you live in an apartment and listen to it appropriately, it’s real neighbor-hating material. The leader by a hair in this essential category is Chrome’s Live, which (à la Guru Guru) comes packaged with the poor Chrome Flashback. I used to think of Chrome as a kind of stilted sci-fi concept combo that masqueraded as an arty hard rock band in the late ’70s, mostly to ill effect, on much lauded things like Half-Machine Lip Moves. At one point, I had even hypnotized myself into believing that Chrome’s inherent difficulty made them listenable. Moving to the West Coast made busted matchwood of that when I had to decide what to keep for the moving van and what to throw out.

Anyway, Chrome playing live at the turn of the century is a different animal entirely. Starting with the carrier wave from The Outer Limits‘ “The Production and Decay of Strange Particles,” you think you’re going to get old Chrome, but art gets kicked from the stage, bludgeoned to death by guitar amps, about six minutes in. From there it’s punch-yer-face early-’70s heavy metal, driven by a mean-sounding rhythm section. “Abstract Nympho” could fit on the Budgie set with no one the wiser. “Firebomb” is transformed from a quaint 1980 industrial disco novelty into a glowering jam that tosses white phosphorus on the audience for fun. For “The Strangers,” the knobs on the Linear Power Boosters, or their facsimiles, are turned so far to the right they break off. The p.a. is crushed.

Even the annotation is a hoot: Some babble about a bikini-wearing dancer with a flaming phallus and a claim about “Chrome’s . . . joyous acceptance by an entire planetful of modern musicians. . . . ” The album illustration is a door-knocker armed with a sobering array of teeth, standing ready to chew off the incautious hand. When I was 13, I would’ve bought it in a second.