Escapi Music Inc.
Narrated by Carmine Appice, written by Todd K. Smith
Hailed as “The American Led Zeppelin,” Cactus were promoted as superstars almost from the get go. With echoes of a supergroup still in their infancy, Cactus were peddled around town as the next big thing only to end up in the history books as a generic boogie band. In reality, they were much more and deserved far better treatment. Formed in the spring of 1970 from the ashes of three seminal late ‘60’s bands including Vanilla Fudge, The Detroit Wheels and The Amboy Dukes, Cactus offered an American alternative to the young lions of the British blues boom. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, the Vanilla Fudge rhythm section, were on the verge of joining the Jeff Beck Group with singer Rod Stewart when Beck was derailed by a motorcycle accident. The incident took Beck out of commission for 18-months sending Stewart scurrying off to join the Faces with mate Ron Wood and left Bogert and Appice scratching their heads.
“We wanted to form a blues-based hard rock band like Free, Humble Pie or Led Zeppelin,” says Carmine Appice in his recent chat with The Cutting Edge. “We ended up recruiting Jim McCarty from Mitch Ryder’s Detroit Wheels and Buddy Miles Express on guitar and, after a couple different singers, decided to go with Rusty Day of the Amboy Dukes because he played harp too.” Rehearsals seemed promising with only Day on shaky feet. Atlantic records bought into the franchise and signed the band to a four-album development deal to be released on their sub-imprint Atco. “They wanted a record right away so we gave them a couple covers we worked up and a handful of original songs,” says Appice. The covers included Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” and Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm.” The latter became a crowd favorite due to its frantic, turbocharged delivery.
Critics heaped the band in with Blue Cheer, Mountain and Grand Funk Railroad. Yet, as the years roll by the self-titled Cactus debut has proved to be a classic slice of early ‘70’s hard rock. Like its phallic cover, the record showcased a band at their most exciting, gritty and vibrant. Original tracks “My Lady from South of Detroit,” “Let Me Swim,” Oleo,” and “Feel So Good” cook with youthful arrogance and lustful swagger - even making room for both bass and drum solos that would later fill their live set. “Rusty wasn’t the best singer,” admits Appice, “but he was unique he had his own sound and way of punching out a song. McCarty could play with the best of them. He is soulful and aggressive. Tim Bogert played the bass like a guitar, if Jim (McCarty) took a solo Tim would be right there playing a bass solo. They were both trying to out-strut the other.”
A second record One Way Or Another (1971) continued the bands flirtation with the electric blues. The slicker, more polished disc had the trademark of its engineer Eddie Kramer as its backbone. “We didn’t even know who Eddie was,” remembers Appice, “McCarty said he knew this kid from up-state that was pretty good in the studio. That was the first time we met him… together at Electric Lady (studios).” Again, covers of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Chuck Willis’ “Feel So Bad” kick off both sides. Molded into the Cactus style the songs are pounding and ferocious. Band-penned “Rockout, Whatever You Feel Like” “Rock ‘n Roll Children” and the McCarty spotlight “Big Mama Boogie, Pts.1-2” highlight this opus. The autobiographical “Hometown Bust” and the catchy title track “One Way or Another” proved Cactus could indeed step up their game.
“We were all doing drugs back then,” says Appice. “Everybody was. Rusty was just into it a bit more. He became our supplier. If we needed a pill, blow or some weed Rusty would get it for us. He liked to live dangerous walk on the wild side.” Restrictions (1971) was the last record to feature the bands original line up. It had its moments like “Token Chokin,” “Evil” and “Guiltless Glider.” But the light was beginning to fade among the dodgier songs “Restrictions” and “Alaska” with its lyrics about Santa Claus, penguins and the aurora borealis. McCarty was growing sick of Bogert’s overbearing bass complaining that the music didn’t do it for him anymore. “I thought there was more banging up against each other than there was working and grooving together,” says McCarty in 1996 Cactology collection.
“When Jim (McCarty) left,” says Appice, “Atlantic wanted us to cut Rusty as well. They felt he wasn’t strong enough as a singer to compete with Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers. So we got an English singer, Peter French (of Atomic Rooster), Werner Fritzschings on guitar and an old friend of McCarty’s Duane Hitchings on keys.” Making the English thing stick the band named the new opus Ot N’ Sweaty and put it out as a half-live/half studio affair. “It was an ok transition,” claims Appice, “especially the song ‘Bad Stuff’ but then Jeff (Beck) called and said he was all healed up and ready to play. Rod Stewart advised us against it but we went anyway and that was the end of Cactus.”
And so it was 35 years ago. Beck, Bogert and Appice did above average in sales as did their Japanese only live release. McCarty spent some time in Memphis before hooking up with ex-Mitch Ryder bandmate Johnny Badanjek to form Rockets and later the Detroit Blues Band. Day also had a brief stint with Mitch Ryder’s Detroit then moved on to playing with pre-Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines. By the late ‘70s Day was running ads to put Cactus together again. Luminaries of both Pat Travers and Ted Nugent’s bands passed through the ranks but nothing stuck. Living in Florida at the time Day got caught up in drug trafficking and on June 3, 1982 he and his 12-year old son were murdered in a gangland slaying.
“Tim and I drifted around for the next few years,” says Appice. “We both worked with Rod Stewart, and then I went on to my heavy metal years with Ted Nugent, King Kobra and Blue Murder. The last ten or so years I’ve been working with Edgar and Johnny Winter, Mothers Army (with Joe Lynn Turner) and my Guitar Zeus project.” Appice was the first rock drummer to conduct instructional clinics and symposiums for budding musicians. “Around 2001 the idea of a reunion of sorts started to flare up,” continues Appice. “Randy Pratt from the Lizards was a big supporter. He was pushing the idea of the three of us getting back together. We first thought of getting Pete French (Cactus II) but Jim was working with Jimmy Kunes (Savoy Brown) and thought he be the better fit.” Kunes nailed the gig spending seven straight days with Appice writing lyrics and melodies.
Yet the reunion was slow in coming. “Jim (McCarty) had an accident under his car,” relates Appice. “He was trying to be a mechanic and the whole thing came down on him. He still has some trouble with his ears. Then Tim (Bogert) got real sick with an intestinal virus. We crashed three hard-drives worth of material and then Jimmy’s (Kunes) mom passed. It was three-four years of real difficulty. We thought maybe Rusty was up there stopping the whole thing from the other side.” As word spread of the reunion Cactus was hired to play the 2006 Sweden Rock Festival. Things looked shaky for the four-piece but at the last minute work on the record was completed and a warm up gig at BB Kings in New York City went amazingly well. Says Appice, “the line was around the corner at Times Square. The cops threatened to shut the show down if we didn’t get people off the street and in the venue on time. The response was just unbelievable.”
Response at the Sweden Rock fest was just as positive. “We have this song called ‘Cactus Music’ that we wrote as an anthem,” says Appice. “It kills live and the crowd loves it.” The song is just one of 14 tracks on the new Cactus V disc out on Escapi Music. A majestic return to their boogie bar-band roots, the powerful foursome shift gears for one more time around the track. McCarty flexes his guitar heroics on the James Brown-inspired “Your Brother’s Keeper,” the bump and grinding “The Groover,” and the Zeppelin-esque “Muscle and Soul.” Bogert still likes to get his chops wet as he spars with the guitarist on “Shine,” the barnstorming “Living for Today,” and “Gone Train Gone.”
It’s easy to see why Bogert and Appice have been partners in so many circles. They are one of the tightest rhythm sections alive. “Electric Blue” and the pure, raw edge of “Part of the Game” showcases the two at their finest. The newest and most anticipated addition is Jimmy Kunes. Thick and whisky-soaked, his vocal brings a legendary presence to each song an uncanny match, built perfect for this band. His delivery attacks with emotional enthusiasm as he spins his own style on the lyrics and claims ownership to their outlaw past. “Doing Time,” “High in the City,” and “Living for Today” take on a whole new meaning behind Kunes’ delta-blues range.
Appice continues his break-neck work ethic with the third installment into the Guitar Zeus franchise by releasing the Ultimate Guitar Zeus. Featuring such heavy-hitters as Ted Nugent, Slash, Brian May, Zakk Wylde, Vivian Campbell and Pat Travers the drummer rounds up 14 rough and ready tunes begging for attention. Playing bass is ex-Firms’ Tony Franklin with vocals by Kelly Keeling (Baton Rouge, Blue Murder). Standout tracks include a fire-breathing “Days Are Night” with Nugent grinding away on his hollow-body Gibson. A prized slice of melodic rock, and an unexpected one at that, is the Slash contributed Cheap Trick-ish “Where You Belong.” Its tasteful chorus and appeal lean heavily on the ex-GnR mans lighter side. Viv Campbell with Keeling create soulful magic on “Doing Fine.” Yet the Steve Morse addition “4 Miles High” and Y. Malmsteen’s “This Time Around” come off like Audioslave outtakes. A couple unusual entrees include Appice singing and playing the Rod Stewart classic “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (which he co-wrote) and guitar parts by John McEnroe and Steven Segal.
Websites: Escapi Music, Cactus, Carmine Appice