Editor’s Note: Den of Antiquities focuses on the hazy days of proto-metal and the sounds and stories which surrounded the birth of our beloved genre. Read on below for loud pioneers, forgotten gems from days of yore and a healthy dose of fuzz!
If you meet a stoner metal freak devoted enough to dig into the genre’s history beyond Black Sabbath, there’s usually one band in particular that they will rave to you about to no end. Formed all the way back in 1968 by three teenagers from Brooklyn, NY and named after a side character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sir Lord Baltimore have been dubbed time and time again the “godfathers of stoner rock,” and I haven’t a reason in the world to disagree. The fuzz filled riffs and avant-garde vocal stylings found on the band’s debut album, Kingdom Come, are thrilling even today. But in 1971, they were miles ahead of their time.
Drummer and singer John Garner had only been jamming with schoolmates Louis Dambra, a guitarist who had also played in the hard rock group The Koala (1), and bass player Gary Justin for a week when they had their big break. Garner saw an ad in the Village Voice that read “Heavy band needed to record album,” which led the 18-year-old soon-to-be trailblazers to talent scout Mike Appel (famous for his later role as Bruce Springsteen’s manager) and that was that. Before too long they were playing their first show, at Carnegie Hall of all places, and nabbing a place as the opener on a Black Sabbath tour.
Armed with enough riffs to create a whole new genre, Garner and crew entered the studio to record 1970’s Kingdom Come. Unknowingly baptized into the world of “Rock God”-hood, Sir Lord Baltimore was lucky enough to have their album mixed at the newly minted Electric Lady studios with iconic engineer Eddie Kramer at the helm. Apparently, even the mighty Pink Floyd was impressed with the history being made in the next room. Released on Mercury Records, Kingdom Come managed to just barely break the US Top 100 and has been reissued many times over the years, though according to John Garner they’ve all been bootlegs and even the most underground of record stores seem to have balked at selling them.
Kingdom Come is a masterpiece, there is no question about it. From the opening line of “Master Heartache,” through the unexpectedly fun medieval folk throwback “Like Isle of Innerfree” to the absolutely frantic sounding “Hell Hound,” the operatic vocals and blazing guitars found on this record are like absolutely nothing else found before them.
In a now history-making review of the album for Creem magazine, Mike Saunders became the first to use the term “heavy metal” in a context that would stand up to definitions of heavy metal to come (2). Sir Lord Baltimore, Saunders writes, “seems to have down pat most all of the best heavy metal tricks in the book,” and that claim still holds true today.
But whatever magic Sir Lord Baltimore was able to conjure up in the studio never seemed to quite translate live. Allegedly thrown off stage at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in NY, it seems that throwing a few 18-year-olds on tour with little training or developed musical chops was not the best way to create a band with staying power. But don’t worry Appel, we don’t blame you too much for burning out these legends before they could properly take off; it doesn’t seem like you did it alone. Apparently their partners in stoner doom invention, Black Sabbath, also played a role in their concert mishaps. In a 2013 interview with Ken McIntyre for Classic Rock magazine, Garner tells the story of a show at the Virginia Dome: “We were playing to over 6,000 people and we were doing a great job. And all of a sudden the power went out. Somebody pulled the plug. Then we started again. People were going crazy, they loved us. And they pulled the plug again.” I guess when you’re in the process of inventing a genre, you don’t take too kindly to another band shredding a similar path.
Despite the rocky first tour, Sir Lord Baltimore entered the studio once again to release a self-titled album in 1971. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much magic there either. This second attempt at amp-frying gold is a far, far cry from the heaviness brought down by Kingdom Come. The album also included, at the behest of the producer, a fake live track with a manufactured audience dubbed in, something he thought would bring attention to the album and instead just adds to the overall sense of failure. In fact, it is such a spectacular disappointment that Julian Cope had to add an addendum to his original glowing review of the band’s first offering, profusely apologizing for what his unsuspecting readers would be subjected to were they to dig any deeper into their discography. I’m obliged to offer the same apology.
The band, which now included Dambra’s brother Joey on second guitar, started to work towards a new record when Garner was unceremoniously dropped from the group and the rest of them from the label. Over 30 years later, in 2006, John Garner and Gary Justin used the beginnings of that third record to release Sir Lord Baltimore III: Raw, which seemed to find some degree of critical acclaim. Raw has an explicitly Christian tilt to it, and Garner’s explanation for that is honestly pretty awesome: “Basically, I said that heavy music has a lot of influence with its Satanisms and its vampirism and its sewn-up mouths, but what’s heavier than the power of God? (3) (McIntyer, 2013)” Despite their eternal lack of tangible recognition (ahem, money) for the blessing that Garner, Dambra, and Justin gave us with the release of Kingdom Come, the remaining members of the band proudly carried Sir Lord Baltimore’s torch until Garner’s death in 2015. Now, all we have left is the enthusiasm of the stoner metal freak on the street and the dream of a slightly more legit reissue.
(1) A funny aside about The Koala – apparently there was a longstanding rumor that the band was from Australia rather than their true hometown of Brooklyn, NY. It seems that this rumor was started by the record label as a way to possibly increase attention for the band. A similar tactic had already successfully worked with fellow New Yorkers the Strangeloves, but didn’t seem to have the same appeal this time around. They’re also pretty solid and worth checking out.
(2) The proper first instance of “heavy metal” being used in a review was a year earlier in Rolling Stone when Saunders decried Humble Pie as being “a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-laden shit-rock band, with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt,” after the release of As Safe As Yesterday Is. But for as awesome and heavy as Humble Pie is, they are absolutely not a metal band, so the term doesn’t hold quite the same weight here as it does in the SLB review. Historically, Lester Bangs has been credited with coining the term in a 1972 review of Sabbath’s first record, but not only is he two years late, he never actually used the phrase anywhere in the review. So, now you have a fun fact you can use to win arguments on the internet with metal elitists.
(3) Well, if you’ve been paying attention – Blue Cheer.