Bootleg City alderman Matt Boles dropped me an email not long ago, suggesting I write about a 1970 record by a band called Attila, a proto-metal duo, of all things, from Long Island. The name of the band rang a bell; I thought I might have a rip of the record on one or another hard drive, but a cursory search turned up nothing. Matt was kind enough to point me to a location where I could procure an electronic copy of the album, and, upon seeing the cover art, I knew exactly why it rang so familiar.
Attila was the ill-conceived act created by Billy Joel (playing an organ through a Marshall stack) and drummer Jon Small after the demise of their short-lived R&B group the Hassles. Influenced by the heavier-than-heavy riffage of Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, and the like, as well as the mind-expanding and judgment-numbing effects of d-lysergic acid diethylamide, Attila pillaged small clubs and raped a few dozen hi-fis with its self-titled record. Yes, that is Billy Joel, wearing fur pelts and posing with Small in a meat locker. And while such packaging might seem at best laughable, you ain’t experienced nuthin’ ’til you’ve heard the thing.
“Wonder Woman” kicks off the record, and we should be able to tell we’re in trouble, right from the get-go. A swirl of amplified wah-wah noise greets us, like a haze of pot smoke from an open van door. Out come the fur pelt-wearin’ Long Island Huns—Jon Small flailing around, beating anything he can find with his manly drum-clubs, and Joel coaxing noises from his organ rig, just like Jimi Hendrix, only without the sexiness or melodic intent. “Wonder Woman with your skin so fair!” Joel shouts. “Wonder Woman with your long, red hair! You have the velvet touch! You have what I want so much! My love is burnin’ fire! My need is my desire!”
Unga-bunga, motherfucker! Everything is shouted—and by shouted, I don’t mean “sung with occasional shouts to punctuate important points in the narrative.” I mean shouted as in “my gonads are in this vise grip that I keep under my Hammond B-3 and every time I hit a C, D, or E note, it automatically tightens.” It’s painful, excruciating shouting, like in the Saw movies, only bloodier.
The whole record is like that, which is messy enough when Joel is flapping on about his lust hose or declaiming the beauty of a maiden he and Small have dragged back to the meat locker. When he tries to tell a story, though—as he does exactly once, on “California Flash”—the results are beyond laughable:
He jumped out on the stage
He knew he had everything made
He broke out into a song
Oh, he couldn’t do nothin’ wrong
Then he started doing a dance
Said it was imported from France
The girls all started to prance
To see the California Flash movin’ his pants.
I urge you to re-read the last four lines above three or four or five times. Hey, if I had to, you should, as well.
“Revenge is Sweet” is actually listenable, particularly if you’re really drunk and just poisoned all your enemies (thus ending your career in the United States Postal Service; I know—been there, done that). Joel relishes his inner payback fantasies over a groove Deep Purple would employ to much more successful effect in coming years. “I can spit on those who called me names,” Joel howls, “I’m a phoenix rising from the flames.” You want to feel good for the guy, but he keeps yelling, “I kick your faces in” at inopportune moments and, well, there’s just not that much to root for there.
I have a hard time imagining how much Joel’s dealer made the night Joel and Small recorded the melody-free instrumental “Amplifier Fire.” It is an abortion in two easy parts: “Godzilla” (a laughable attempt at a blues, probably during the weed appetizer) and “March of the Huns” (the free-form freakout, most likely “composed” on the spot as the mushrooms kicked in). The latter’s “ah-ah-ah” vocalizations make me laugh every time I hear them, which caused me to awaken from at least one violent nightmare this week chuckling uncontrollably.
“Rollin’ Home” is Joel at his most Robert Plantish, and, thus, at his most ridiculous. As Small plays a constant drum roll behind him, the Amplified Organ Man screams such come-hither lines as “See my love tonight / Oh, she gonna treat me right,” “Got some new ideas I’m gonna have to try them out in bed,” and the tongue-twisting “I’m gonna do you better than I’ve ever gonna do ya before.” And those aren’t even the most hilarious lyrics in the song. Trust me—you don’t want to be drinking anything when you play this for the first time; stuff will shoot out your nose.
“Holy Moses” and “Brain Invasion” close the record with more of the same and if, by that point, you haven’t slammed your head against the wall to make the pain go away, you should get a t-shirt or something. Maybe a fur pelt with “Attila Tour ’70” stitched on the back.
Alas, Attila was short-lived. Shortly after their record was released, Joel made off with Small’s wife, Elizabeth, thus ending the band. Imagine, though, what might have been, if Attila had made it big—“In a Gadda Da Vida” big, or, God help us all, Zeppelin big. “Piano Man” might have been about hairy men with amplifiers playing in caves. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” could have been reconstituted as a 12-minute dirge about Bryndyr and Leddy, who killed pterodactyls for food. “Just the Way You Are” would have remained an oxygen-sucking lounge tune; it’s the only thing that song could ever be.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” might have never happened. [Sigh] Oh, Attila! Attila! Wherefore art thou, Attila?