Ted Nugent’s Late-’70s Run – Rock’s Best Hot Streaks
For all the recent controversy surrounding his political views, there’s no disputing the fact that Ted Nugent has enjoyed a remarkably successful and eventful musical career over the past five decades. In fact, at one point, all he was famous for was music — in particular over a remarkable, never-equalled four-year stretch between 1975 and ’78.
As far back as the early ‘60s, a teen-aged Nugent was already playing guitar with different bands in and around the suburbs of Detroit and Chicago — including formative lineups of what became the Amboy Dukes. By 1968, the Dukes were enjoying a bona fide national hit with their sophomore album’s title track, ‘Journey to the Center of the Mind.’ However, the band would never duplicate this early success, nor could they seem to maintain a stable lineup or even a clearly defined musical direction.
By the release of 1971’s fittingly named ‘Survival of the Fittest’ album, Nugent was ready to do something about that by assuming top billing over his bandmates. Another four years and two albums (both released through Frank Zappa’s DiscReet Records) would come and go, however, before Nugent finally dropped the albatross-like Amboy Dukes name for good.
This decision coincided with Nugent’s decision to craft a more focused hard-rock sound. He signed with Epic Records, where A&R executive and producer Tom Werman (Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Mother’s Finest) was already aware of Nugent’s remarkably healthy concert business, particularly in the Midwest — one which far exceeded his record sales. Werman also admired the very special chemistry shared with his backing band, bassist Rob Grange (the only surviving Amboy Duke), drummer Cliff Davies, and vocalist/guitarist Derek St. Holmes.
Werman and this foursome ultimately accomplished what prior Amboy Dukes lineups had failed to: harnessing the electrifying power and excitement of a Ted Nugent live show on vinyl in the form of an eponymous solo debut unleashed in 1975.
‘Ted Nugent,’ a raucous mixture of inspired songwriting, bravura performances and raw talent into 40 combustible minutes, essentially launched a whole new star persona — Ted Nugent, Gonzo loincloth-clad guitar hero. Audiences would heartily embrace it for the remainder of the ’70s.
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First up on ‘Ted Nugent’ was the eight-minute tour-de-force of ‘Stranglehold,’ built on a badass Nugent riff and pulsing Grange bass line, then underscored by Davies’ unwavering beat and capped with St. Holmes soulful lead vocals. St. Holmes, in fact, was assigned the bulk of lead singing duties across subsequent Ted-penned classics like ‘Stormtroopin’,’ ‘Just What the Doctor Ordered,’ ‘Queen of the Forest,’ plus his self-composed ‘Hey Baby.’ Nugent, meanwhile, notably only took over the mic for the manic ‘Motor City Madhouse,’ and otherwise let his nimble fingers do the talking.
Rock fans listened, eagerly lapping up two million copies of ‘Ted Nugent.’ The guitar wonder had made a belated arrival to the big time. Not that Nugent spent any time resting on his laurels. In fact, he blazed the concert trail for the remainder of 1975 and well into ’76. By the time it was over, however, something had changed within the quartet. During the sessions for the follow up, titled ‘Free for All,’ St. Holmes split over creative and personal differences.
To that point, Nugent had three songs (‘Turn it Up,’ ‘Light My Way’ and ‘Dog Eat Dog’) with Derek’s vocals safely in the can — leaving the project in a bind. Nugent and Werman turned to a relatively unknown singer named Meat Loaf for help on five cuts (including the speedy ‘Hammerdown’ and hypnotic ‘Writing on the Wall’), while Ted himself handled lead on the title track.
Meatloaf, however, was unable to tour — as he was headed for solo stardom behind the following year’s ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ Nugent decided to bring St. Holmes back into the fold, and the band once again hit the road, playing to ever-increasing crowds as word of their blistering performances continued to spread.
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Not wanting to risk losing this momentum, the foursome reconvened with Werman in May of ’77 to bang out what proved to be their watershed release, ‘Cat Scratch Fever.’ The album racked up sales of three million in the United States alone, and yielded the only Top 40 single of Nugent’s career in the title track.
Hardly a one-trick pony though, ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ produced several genuine Motor City Madman classics — including album cuts like ‘Live it Up,’ ‘Death by Misadventure’ and ‘Out of Control’ (most of them sung by Derek St. Holmes, incidentally), not to mention perennial concert favorite ‘Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.’ These crowd-pleasing hard rockers, combined with the triumphs of then-recent albums, helped Nugent and company graduate to the status of arena, and then stadium, headliners.
They would close out the year as the top grossing concert act of 1977. Nugent then kicked off ’78 by releasing the descriptively named ‘Double Live Gonzo!’ One of the decade’s best live albums, it sold another three million copies.
And then, it all came crashing down. Nugent’s band saw the exit of St. Holmes and Grange, who both departed before Ted could take a well-deserved victory lap as co-headliner for the prestigious and lucrative Texxas Jam. Instead, capable replacements in vocalist/guitarist Charlie Huhn and bassist John Sauter stepped into their vacated slots.
The chart magic, however, was gone. Subsequent Nugent studio efforts like ‘Weekend Warriors,’ ‘State of Shock’ and ‘Scream Dream’ delivered both diminishing sales figures and fewer enduring standards to the guitarist’s essential discography. The occasionally inspired ‘Intensities in 10 Cities’ live album from 1981 was but a poor cousin to ‘Double Live Gonzo!’
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Even more shocking, Epic Records had seemingly lost faith in their former cash cow. The label chose precisely this juncture to drop Nugent. Atlantic was waiting in the wings to give him another shot — but with some jarring provisos. The Motor City Madman was asked to tone down his image and sound for 1982’s ‘Nugent,’ and told that he’d have to reinstate St. Holmes as lead vocalist.
This forced arrangement, perhaps predictably, proved short-lived — and ultimately it led to an ever-rotating band lineup through the ’80s. By decade’s end, Nugent had joined Damn Yankees, maybe for lack of better options. The ’90s eventually saw him returning to sporadic solo recording, and the ‘00s to more regular touring.
None of it, however, compared to the glories of his late-‘70s era.
Even today, as Nugent’s music is increasingly overshadowed by his aforementioned political outbursts, fans look back nostalgically to those heady years of 1975-78 — when the Motor City Madman caught fire for a hot streak unlike many others in the annals of rock.