It’s time again for another round of “That 70’s Guy – Retro Review”.
For this one, we are going all the way back to 1971 and showcasing a Canadian trendsetter for what would become a staple for 1970’s hard rock. A Better Road from Steel River, an album I cherish still to this day both musically and personally.
Steel River was officially born in 1969 from the streets of Toronto and consisted of members Bob Forrester (keyboards), Rob Cockell (bass), Tony Dunning (lead Guitar) Ray Angrove (drums) and with lead singer John Dudgeon. In 1970 they released their first album Weighin’ Heavy. It was here that I got my first taste of Steel River when they released their first single “Ten Pound Note”. However, it was wasn’t from the album that I knew it. It was the AM radio play of the 45 and later when it was included on K-Tel’s 1970 album 20 Explosive Hits. K-Tel albums were a Christmas staple every year during my youth. “I wonder what this present wrapped up like an album is?”
“Ten Pound Note” went on to be a top 10 hit in Canada and closed out the year ending countdown at #79. It even had some minor success while “bubbling under” on the U.S. Billboard charts.
While Steel River mainly performed throughout Canada playing the bar circuit, local high schools and arenas promoting their homegrown success, they also engaged in three major American tours with notables including Humble Pie, Black Sabbath, The James Gang, Melanie, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, Edgar Winter, Mountain, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc.
A Better Road was released on the heels of Weighin’ Heavy in 1971. Right away they released the single “Southbound Train”. This was a big hit in their Southern Ontario stomping grounds which I cohabitated. Local radio stations seemed to play the same songs every half hour back then so “Southbound Train” got stuck in my head and has been stuck there for 46 years!! It eventually peaked at number 28 overall on the national RPM charts.
Ok, let’s skip forward a couple years to 1974. My buddies and I are now seasoned rock and roll enthusiasts and experts. After all, we are 14 years old now. While 45’s are still an integral part of our arsenal, by 1974 we were actually buying and listening to the whole albums. Imagine that? Listening to songs by bands that were not on the radio or the flip side of a 45? You mean bands had other songs? How come nobody told us this before? I think you get the point. I was lucky to see Steel River in concert a few times at my high school and local arenas but even then we were only privy to their radio hits.
In the summer of 1974, my buddy Rod picked up the album A Better Road and my connection with Steel River changed forever. I remember back then my friends and I would go back to my buddy’s house, pick a piece of real estate and put an album on the hi-fi console while individually going off into a personal place while listening. We wouldn’t talk to each until it was over or in this case flip the record over. Who knows what I was thinking. It was most likely about a girl in my class or being a rock star. The choices were limited.
Now let’s go back in our mind to 1974 and try this again. I’ll put on the record and you close your eyes while I try to walk you through this.
Steel River – A Better Road – released 1971 by Evolution Records
I recently obtained this on CD for the first time ever through a re-release from AXE Records. It contains the single “Mexican Lady”. The original album I have does not include it. My review will include it because quite frankly it’s one of the best damn songs ever recorded!!
- Mexican Lady – This song is, well, like the sun, air or food. It’s just there and you need it to survive and it has been, like, forever in my life. It was on every playlist, every tape, every record pile. You name it, it was there. I remember once when we had a high school dance disc jockeyed by Dave Steele from Hamilton’s AM radio station CKOC, we requested this song and he said he didn’t bring it with him but he promised he would play it for us later during his night shift after the dance. Sure enough, we waited up and true to his word he played it and dedicated it to us. And if no one was alive to hear it at that God awful time of the morning we taped it for proof. That damn dedication was played over and over everywhere for months to come like we were celebrities! Oh, and about the song? Great opening riff, great guitar driven straight ahead rock and roll. Fabulous sing-along vocals and incredible drumming from Ray are the highlights here not to mention a wicked guitar solo from Mr. Dunning. The visualization of what that “Mexican Lady” really looked like still mystifies me during each listen to this day.
- Do You Know Where You’re Going? – Ok, this is where the real album kicked in back then. And a kick in the face it sure is. Pure 1970’s rock. “Here we go gang”. Heavy guitar opening accompanied by the sweet sounds of the Hammond organ. Great guitar throughout with a really nice (long) solo. Fabulous funky sound with another catchy as hell chorus. It’s so convincing I swear they are asking me where I’m going. Some perfect background vocals mixed in as well. A real heavy tune. I dig it!
- Take It Slowly – Ok remember when I said we used to put on the album and daydream. Well, this was the one that did it for me. This is without a doubt my favorite Steel River song. A real emotional song for me. When I listen today it brings back all those dreams and hopes of a young boy. Where did it all go? Take it slowly? Cripes, I tried that and now look at us almost 50 years later. Always has and always will have deep roots within me. Acoustic driven song with PERFECT vocals and chorus with yet another softer, gentler solo. Tears included.
- What You Are – Another heavy organ/guitar driven rock song. Solid beat that showcases that Steel River were really a serious contender back then and extremely underrated overall. Play this song in between Deep Purple and Uriah Heep and it wouldn’t skip a beat. Love it!
- They’ve Been Waiting – “That” song right after the great “What you Are” and before the classic “Southbound Train”. Tough spot to be in. No worries this song stands on its own and holds its own. Acoustically arranged with some nice consistent not-in-your-face guitar work displayed here.
- Southbound Train – The first single. At the time it fared well on the charts but over the years this baby has become a true Canadian classic. It’s just one of those songs. As soon as that opening keyboard riff begins, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing those auricles will twitch and turn towards the source of it. Of course, there is also the Lays Potato Chips chorus. Meaning you cannot listen to this song and stay silent during it. Everyone – all together now!! “Stand up, move on down. Catch that train, its southward bound” I dare ya, go ahead try it!
- Don’t Tell Me – A slower plodding song that is really sung with authority. Shining keyboard work here courtesy of Bob Forrester is the highlight along with a mix of some fine guitar. I get it you are NOT wrong!
- No One Will Hear You – Another brilliant “sit around the campfire” acoustic sounding gem. Songs like this were pure bliss back then and a sign of the times. Neil Young, America, and Bread just to name a few made a living writing and singing songs like this.
- Take You Away – A short, under 3 minute, get to the point rocker that highlights a little slide guitar and more excellent electric piano.
- Joyful Judy – Always a favorite of side 2. A song that builds and builds to that sing a long finish. A nice “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” type ending. Maybe it’s the same Judy? The hype is real. It is that good at the end.
- Love Can’t be Made Of Gold/Let’s Think Ahead – A perfect ending. A nice feel good song with some really nice harmonized melodies that fades out with “Auld Lang Syne”. That is very ironic as Steel River would soon break up and this is the last song recorded on a studio album by them.
Steel River inherited all the great qualities that made up that early ‘70’s sound. Beautiful ballads, beautiful melodies, songs with feeling and emotion that are acoustically keyboard driven one minute and straight ahead rock and roll the next. I always remember seeing them in concert back then and I would stare at the famous spinning Leslie speakers on the back of the Hammond B3’s. You just don’t see that anymore.
All original members are alive and well still living in Scarborough Ontario. Here’s hoping they dust off those instruments and I’ll be there! I need to close my eyes and go back one more time.
A Better Road is obviously dated but it is just as good of a listen today as it always was. Maybe better. It makes me appreciate how a small speck in the big picture of rock music can have a lifelong effect on me and for that, I thank you Steel River!! They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.
“Take it slowly, what is your hurry? Being careful will get you there.”
Brian “That 70’s Guy” Ronald