Rhino Handmade

I was introduced to the music of Vanilla Fudge in college by a good buddy of mine who served as the music director of the campus radio station. Although I was always aware of the existence of this Hempstead, NY-based quartet who skyrocketed to fame in the late ’60s as one of the early boons of AOR radio and helped give Led Zeppelin their first break in the States via an opening slot on their 1968/‘69 tour, I never actually heard them. That is, of course, until my boy put the needle on his crackling vinyl copy of the first Fudge LP, which is when I quickly realized why he had hailed them as “The Melvins of the Flower Power era.”

In the span of two years, the band recorded five albums loaded with organ-heavy, swirling, psychedelic deconstructions of such popular hits of the time with the goal of, according to drummer Carmine Appice, “to put the lyrical quality of the song into a musical realm that fit the lyric.” Meaning that, for instance, slowing down and extending the likes of The Supremes’ otherwise sunny, soulful smash interpretation of the 1966 Holland-Dozier-Holland single “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to really bring out the essence of the hurtful feeling of being used by an ex-lover conveyed in the song’s words, or delivering The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” as a grinding, baroque blues crusher that truly unlocks the claustrophobia of the controlling, abusive relationship that Lennon and McCartney seemed to be otherwise cheerfully singing about.

Sam and Dave’s “Shotgun”, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”, Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, The Zombies’ “She’s Not There”, Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” and Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” all fell prey to the Fudge. And when critics of the time began chastising the group for sticking to covers, Appice, organist Mark Stein, bassist Tim Bogert and guitarist Vince Martell began showcasing the strength of their collective songwriting prowess with their latter LPs, 1968’s Renaissance and 1969’s Near the Beginning and Rock & Roll, which contained such great original tracks as “Faceless People,” “Lord In The Country,” “Windmills Of Your Mind” and “Break Song”, an epic, 20-minute-long jam that shone a spotlight on the Fudge’s uncanny interplay and abominable strength as a live act with the ability to take their progressive hard rock from soft to loud to soft to ear-shattering and back again with the might of a thousand Pixies.

Released in a limited run on Rhino’s Handmade imprint, Box of Fudge is a gorgeously decorated four-disc box set that documents a comprehensive overview of the entirety of Vanilla Fudge’s brief-yet-impactful career before breaking up in 1970, complete with liner notes that give a keenly detailed history of the group with input from all four original members. The first two discs offer a chronological anthology the band had never received in the past. With the exception of “Break Song,” all of the aforementioned crucial cuts from all five proper studio albums of the original lineup (including 1968’s Shadow Morton-produced The Beat Goes On) are accounted for in this first half of the collection, each one beautifully remastered for a clear, crisp play at maximum volume. Additionally, disc two features the long version of “Good Good Livin’”, which was featured as a bonus track on the Sundazed label’s 1998 reissue of Near The Beginning as well as the previously unreleased “Heartache Jam,” cut live during a session at New York City’s Mirasound Studio in January of 1969, and a pair of obligatory cuts from the Fudge’s ill-fated 1984 reunion album Mystery, a God-awful mess of slick hair-metal production that, in spite of British rock guitar great Jeff Beck sitting in under the pseudonym J. Toad, was a cornucopia of cheesy trappings that Rob Reiner had parodied in that year’s classic rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.

The last two discs, on the other hand, is a true spoil of riches for any true fan of the Fudge, as it contains a never-before-released professional soundboard recording of the band’s entire New Year’s Eve 1968/‘69 show at the Fillmore West at the height of their powers as a live act. Not only does it include fiery concert renditions of most of their most popular cover tunes, this particular show is highlighted by a definitive version of “Break Song” on disc 3 and a caustic decimation of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” on disc 4. Also included on that fourth disc are three lengthy previously unissued studio jams—“Love Jam”, “Movin’ On” and the monumental “VF Studio Jam”—that were recorded at Atlantic between Near The Beginning and Rock & Roll that truly emphasize Vanilla Fudge’s growth as more of a blues-based boogie band towards the end of their massive run.

A lot of discerning rock crits from the Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer era of music journalism had their fun breaking the balls of Vanilla Fudge way back when. Box of Fudge proves that the combination of time and the groundswell of sonic disciples over the last twenty years such as Kyuss, Orange Goblin, Black Mountain and The Warlocks have allowed a proper reassessment of the Fudge and their footprint on the state of heavy rock over the last 45 years. Its high time people start to recognize just how incredible “The Melvins of the Flower Power era” truly were and their importance to the genre now known as “stoner rock”. This collection is a great place to start the schooling.