Colorado’s legendary country/rockers are still blazing trails 30-year later.
by Todd K Smith
“I was the only guy that didn’t quit the band” ~ Jock Bartley
The early to mid-seventies saw an onslaught of what critics and music historians now call Southern Californian rock. It was a hybrid of country, folk and rock led by bands like the Byrds, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and The Band. They spurred groups like The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers. FM took a liking to the new-found format and broadcast their hits nationwide. America took notice. Yet somewhere between Boulder and Denver, Colorado the seeds were being planted for a new hit-making machine. Ex-Flying Burrito Brother Rick Roberts started writing with Byrds drummer Michael Clarke and Spirit bassist Mark Andes. Vocalist and songwriter Larry Burnett joined the fold as did heat-seeking guitarist Jock Bartley. Borrowing from the easy country sounds of AOR radio, a supergroup (of sorts) began to build - they just needed a name.
“In Yosemite, back the ‘50’s, they used to set off a bonfire on one of the big mountains,” says guitarist Jock Bartley in our recent chat. “They would then slowly push the burning logs and embers off the side of the cliff and it would fall down looking like a molten waterfall. They named it the firefall and it was a big tourist attraction for years until some activists decided it was harmful to the environment. But for 30 or 40 years the firefall was a big summertime occurrence.” The band had a short list of names and just before their first gig it was decided by mutual vote what the name would be.
“Firefall ended up being a real visual name,” continues Bartley. “As soon as we got our record deal with Atlantic, we started thinking about the cover. I was thinking something like Maxfield Parrish, a real beautiful scene with a comet. Being an artist I wanted to paint it but they ended up doing it photographically. I consulted with the designer until we got what we wanted. The original photography was of a lake in Wyoming. The artist then airbrushed in the dark night, the glow and the comet. Years later, people sent pictures of the real firefall - we included them in album jackets later on and now they’re on our website.”
Firefall was a five-piece guitar band. Each musician came with their own set of chops. Roberts and Burnett rose as the chief songwriters going on to pen such classics as “Cinderella,” “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You” and “Strange Way.” Clarke, a powerful but simple drummer in the mold of Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts matured with Andes’ jazzy innovative playing. Bartley gave it the edge. “We were very fortunate to have the richness of the musicians in the band,” says Bartley. “When you put us in the studio and gave us a song to play we didn’t have to do anything but sound like ourselves.” Yet something was still missing. They found their magic in sixth member, David Muse.
“We knew some songs needed keyboards - maybe a sax or flute,” remembers Bartley. “Rick knew David Muse from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area and we got him out for rehearsals. Unfortunately for David we already had the deal in place so the label didn’t picture him on the first record. But by the second, all that was sorted out and he was an equal member. David’s ability to play multiple instruments really added color and substance to the band. It made us more than just a guitar band. What people relate to when they hear one of our songs are my guitar work and David’s sax and flute - and the interaction between the two.”
The instrumentation of the group combined with multi vocalists and the liquid layering of the music was a perfect formula for Atlantic records. “For a short while Foreigner and Firefall were the darlings of Atlantic records,” says Bartley. “It was a perfect time in 1976. The album came out and within about three months went gold - which was the fastest gold record in the history of the label. When you think about The Stones and Genesis, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin and all the other people signed to that label, that’s an amazing statistic.” Capitalizing on the momentum of their string of hit singles, Atlantic put the band on the biggest tours of that year.
“Our first tour was with Leon Russell,” remembers Bartley, “then suddenly we were touring with The Doobie Brothers then The Band on their last tour right before they went and made the movie Last Waltz. That was astounding to me because The Band changed everything. Then it was Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. We were even fortunate enough to be one of the main opening acts on the Rumors tour playing in front of 60,000 to 100,000 people a night.” Each year got more hectic than the one before and with stacks of gold and platinum records piling up, some thing had to give.
Continues Bartley, “We did a record and a tour a year for three years straight. We were getting really fried. The record company wanted ten ‘You Are the Woman’ or ‘Cinderella’s’ on every album. It was relentless. Granted, we had magical moments in the studio and created music that feels timeless, but we also had six diametrically opposed personalities in the band.” Bartley claims they were times one or two of the guys wouldn’t even be talking to each other. “We had our drinking and drug problems like a lot of bands from that era,” he says.
Eventually the band imploded. What had carried the first three records, Firefall (‘76), Luna Sea (‘77) and Elan (’78) was fragmenting. “Our first album was clean and simple,” says Bartley. “By Elan we were experimenting with a lot of different sounds. I wanted to go in a more rock direction and a lot of the personality problems were swept under the table because of how big we were getting. Undertow (’80) was the result of all that tension.” Though Undertow sold well and boasted two hit singles, “Love that got Away” and “Headed for a Fall” the end of their diamond years was quickly approaching.
“I’ll try to be non-specific about this,” says Bartley, “but one of the guys in the band went to the hospital and kinda had to be revived. It was the night before I was to record my guitar solo on ‘Headed for a Fall.’ I was pissed, I was emotional and I was pissed. Here we were ready to go huge. It didn’t take me long to set up my amp, I turned it up to ten and wailed. That was a one-take solo straight through. When I listen to that solo it has a lot of emotion and anger.” One by one the original members left, some would come back for the occasional guest spot, but in the end only Jock Bartley was left standing.
There were more records, Clouds Across The Sun (‘81), Break of Dawn (‘82) and Mirror of the World (‘83). Session greats John Sambataro and Chuck Kirkpatrick joined Bartley for a number of years with Steven Stills and David Sanborn guesting. After a 15-year break Jock released the fiery Messenger (’98). “There is still plenty of life left in Firefall,” says Bartley. “I’ve kept it going because I believe in this band. The songs are our backbone as well as great musicianship.” Bartley prides himself on attracting good players. Steve Weinmeister has taken over for an ailing Rick Roberts, Sandy Ficca now occupies the deceased Michael Clarke’s position on the drums, Bill Hopkins on bass with Bartley still leading the charge. This lineup, now together for longer than the original, claim to be as tight as during Firefall’s heyday.
“We were a rock band with a handful of great ballads,” reflects Bartley. “We could never really break out of that light rock band thing. We still play what people are paying money to hear but we pump it up. We blow people away and we’re still having a lot of fun doing it. We're really thankful to be able to keep on doing this.” Firefall are weekend warriors these days playing two, sometime three gigs a week. Their circuit includes Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, America, Pure Prairie League and sometimes Poco. This month they’re doing their first night with Foghat. For information on the gig visit: Boomtown Casino.
As a fine artist, Jock Bartley was recently honored by having four of his paintings accepted for the Beatles Art book titled ‘Fantastic New Art of the Fab Four.’ The publishers then asked the Firefall guitarist to write the book’s forward. “They accepted it without changing a word,” says the painter. “Maybe this will jump start my national art career.”