Everything louder than everything else: relentless metal pioneers Sir Lord Baltimore remembered.
Now, let’s not get carried away. Sir Lord Baltimore’s rather paltry output essentially zooms in on 1970’s debut album, Kingdom Come and the following year’s self-titled release – 2006’s significantly delayed affair skews the figures somewhat. Indeed, the band’s history is littered with brevity and low numbers – their lifespan; their live appearances (though always noteworthy, there were but 29); their line-up only expanded to a four-piece with their second album; their derisory record sales. Yet, their ranking in rock history is forever secure, even if some commonly-held ‘truths’ are best not looked at with more than a cursory glance.
Sir Lord Baltimore comprised of lead singer and drummer (more of that later) John Garner, spoilt rich kid guitarist Louie Dambra, and bassist Gary Justin, all of whom met at school in Brooklyn, New York, around 1968. Taken under the wing of A&R man, Mike Appel, shortly to offer the same favour to Bruce Springsteen (in this instance, it would seem, remembering to offer the artist something in the way of cash), they were named after the Indian tracker in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an attempt to give them a slightly English feel during the arse end of the British Invasion.
Their debut album, released by Mercury in 1970, was produced by Appel, fortunately with the assistance of Eddie Kramer, who’s ability to to make perfect sense out of absolutely nonsensical volume was pushed to the limit. Sir Lord Baltimore were loud. Really fucking loud. There are loud albums you can play at a low volume that reduces them to cringe-worthy tinny cartoon replicas of the real thing – you can play Sir Lord Baltimore at a whisper and it still screams. Kramer did not try to calm the beast, rather allowed the band to play out to their full excess, allowing the immense distortion to remain intact. Blue Cheer had already done this but far more politely; likewise, MC5 might upset the locals in the live arena, but neither was this loud on record.
Sir Lord Baltimore’s debut echoes through the years with its influence, from the histrionic vocals and literal destruction of drum kits, to fuzz and squeal happy guitarists across America and beyond. The ship of bones which adorns the cover screams prog but in fact, this just screams. “WOOOMAAAANNN!” John implores throughout Master Heartbreak, on the off-chance she didn’t hear the first time. “SHE CALLED ME A LIAR, THE LADY OF FIRE”, an appalled John hollers on, yes, Lady of Fire. This is heavy metal in its most gonzoid form, three long-haired men, sweating, shouting and hurting themselves from playing so hard.
Nearly a decade earlier, William Burroughs had thrown the phrase ‘heavy metal’ into both The Soft Machine and Nova Express, though in entirely unmusical contexts. ‘Heavy’ in its own right had been hippy speak for as long as Nigels had existed and would be offered to the likes of Iron Butterfly as pleasantries before Steppenwolf hoiked the full phrase for Born to Be Wild. Sir Lord Baltimore were heavy metal though. You wouldn’t downgrade them or make apologies for them in retrospect. It was from appropriate quarters in many ways that they were giving this badge of honour, gifted by Mike Saunders, later to be lead vocalist of punks Angry Samoans, in his review of them in Creem in 1971. Ruining both Mike’s credentials and the oft-proffered notion that this was the first band to received this accolade, Mike had also called Humble Pie heavy metal the previous year. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
As well as their look and sound, there is another track on their debut which rubber stamps them as metal trailblazers. Lake Isle of Innesfree (lyrics written again by hands-on Appel) is an outrageous pile of bumph, riddled with harpsichord, finger-in ear crooning and ‘bold’ lines such as:
“Now a stranger to myself/I think about her now and then,
She was only seventeen/I was eight and ten”
Eight and ten, if you please! Supporting Black Sabbath, who were promoting Paranoid at the time, Sir Lord Baltimore’s first gig was at Carnegie Hall; their second at Fillmore East. Garner’s vocal outbursts on stage led him to the brink of passing out, unsurprising given that the pounding of his drum kit would have been enough to finish most mortals. He remains one of few rock drummers who could match the power of his voice with the mastery of his instrument. This commitment to the cause did not prove infectious. Their second album saw the introduction of Louie’s brother, Joey on second guitar. Now all fully drugged up and beginning to realise they hated one another, the record is a shambles of meandering waffle which some stoner rock enthusiasts hail as the starting pistol for their genre – they’d be advised to rethink this.
Dropped by Mercury, in danger of selling minus numbers of records and now unable to spend any time in the same postcode as each other, they disbanded until as recently as 2006 when three songs written ‘back in the day’ were married to three more recent efforts, should 25 years class as recent. Understandably lacking in the expansive power of old, it also adds a surprising amount of Jesus to proceedings. Yes, both John and Joey (Louie wasn’t invited back) and become not only Christians but preachers. It’s very silly.
Sir Lord Baltimore – The Complete Recordings 1970-2006 is out now from Cherry Red, in a package that sees the albums individually given mini vinyl sleeves and the tiniest attempt at a free poster I’ve ever seen. But it’s super none the less.