Retro Action #21: Riot Bootleg Collections + Top Box Sets and Reissues

In spite of the naysayers and lessening sales numbers, physical music products are very much alive. And in the latter part of this past year, loads of new things hit the bins in anticipation of holiday sales; stuff with exceptional packaging and bonuses to make it all extra sweet. Here, you’ll find some standouts, including a couple killer sets from the criminally undervalued, lost ‘80s rock band, Riot. While sometimes confused with the far bigger pop-metal act Quiet Riot from LA, New York’s Riot hailed from New York. Getting its start in the mid ’70s, the band was formed by guitarist Mark Reale, who would ultimately turn out to be its sole constant member. The band’s tenure would span decades, involve numerous lineups, record labels and styles, but its first few albums tend to get the most acclaim. The band’s first phase featured a young singer named Guy Speranza (1956-2003), whose smooth delivery on songs like “Swords and Tequila,” “Outlaw” and “Fire Down Under” are considered early American metal classics (note: during the late ’70s and early ’80s, the UK had a corner on the global metal market). Speranza would stick around for the band’s first three albums—Rock City (1977), Narita (1979) and Fire Down Under (1981)—before joining the private sector. Some reports have it that the singer was offered a job by Anthrax leader Scott Ian back in the day to front the early NY thrash band. It’s also worth noting that Riot’s first album also featured bassist Phil Feit, whose punk roots had him later following his muse with stints in both Billy Idol’s and Joan Jett’s bands during the ’80s. While a formidable vocalist, Speranza’s laid-back demeanor and unassuming stage persona were at odds with the direction the band wanted to go and the way metal was heading, and he soon left the band, with Fire Down Under standing as his most lasting achievement.

After Speranza’s departure, Reale and company set about to continue the momentum of Fire, with a new approach that included a bolder front man and a more up-to-date style. The result culminated in 1982’s Restless Breed, featuring new singer Rhett Forrester. Forrester’s one-of-a-kind vocal style was one part soulful blues, two parts metallic grit and all badass bravado. Years before the neo-blues hard rock and faux-biker fashion of the late ’80s, Forrester was living his larger-than-life persona writ large, and his reputation for erratic behavior was infamous. Eschewing both the metal posturing of the heavier set and the makeup and hairspray of the pop side, he was in a class by himself. Restless Breed was a triumphant comeback record for Riot, from the epic opening track to the punchy “C.I.A.,” a killer cover of ’60s number “When I Was Young,” and the Stonesy “Loved by You.” While the album would afford the band some prime opening slots on major tours, Elektra Records would soon run out of patience that a hit was not forthcoming. After a live EP, the band would get dropped by the label and find a home on the cleverly named indie, Quality Records. The band would then go on to release one more album with Forrester, Born in America in 1984.

Another killer release, Born in America was heavier than its predecessor, while showcasing the band’s knack for melodic hooks in songs like “You Burn in Me,” and “Running from the Law.” More tours followed, but internal problems, lack of label support, and confusion with the aforementioned Quiet Riot eventually led to the band’s demise. For many Riot fans—including this scribe—the Forrester era yielded the band’s best stuff, even if it wasn’t quite in step with the times. Forrester would go on to play in other bands and release solo albums before his murder in 1994 at the hands of a carjacker, to whom he refused to give up his vehicle. A truly fitting way to go for the consummate rock ‘n’ roll badass.

A couple years later, Reale would form a new version of Riot that would continue on in one shape of form until his death in 2012. Adopting a more melodic, power-metal style, latter albums like Thundersteel (1988) and The Privilege of Power (1990) were from a completely different place, leaving virtually no trace of the earlier eras. Pity, that.

The early Riot era has now been immortalized in two svelte CD box sets from ace reissue label Cherry Red Records. The first, The Official Bootleg Box Set Volume 1 – 1976-1980, captures  the band in its early days with Speranza on vocals, with live sets in New Jersey, Ohio, the UK and at the coveted Monsters of Rock festival in 1980. While some of the sets have similar track lists, Riot fans will have more than enough to noodle on with all of the different quirks and kinks that come along with a live set on six CDs. The Official Bootleg Box Set Volume 2 – 1980-1990 takes over where the first set ends and includes seven CDs, two more from the Speranza era, two with Forrester at the helm, a disc of the later, more metallicized lineup, and a bonus disc of rehearsals and acoustic demos from the Fire Down Under period, a treat for fans and collectors. Both sets come with surprisingly clear remastered sound, full-length booklets and deluxe cases. Well done

More Top Sets, Comps and Reissues More on the metal front, Iron Maiden released the grand Book of Souls: Live Chapter Book, documenting the massive tour that accompanied its last studio effort. Die-hard Maiden fans bear striking similarities to Dead-Heads and Zeppelin fanatics in that they need to have everything associated with the band, so a double-disc collection enshrined in a hardcover book with loads of pics and stellar sound fits the bill quite nicely. Standout tracks include “Wrathchild,” “The Great Unknown” and of course, “Number of the Beast,” all sound electric and alive in this sweet little set.

A couple of KISS-related releases made their way out of the vaults in recent months and are worth a mention or two. First, an expanded issue of Ace Frehley’s comeback album Anomaly, originally released in 2009. Anomaly Deluxe expands the original with remastered sound that adds some more oomph to the proceedings, along with three extra tracks and expanded artwork, all for less than the original cost some years back. (eOne) Warrior—not to be confused the Sci-Fi ’80s metal from—LA, was an aborted project from erstwhile KISS replacement Vinnie Vincent. The highly talented but insanely eccentric axe-man—who has been in virtual exile for over 20 years—was helping KISS with songwriting and session work on their Creatures of the Night album (arguably their last really strong effort) in the early ’80s, when he was offered the shot of joining Boston hard rockers New England, who had a record deal, but lacked a guitarist.

The resulting 1982 hard rock jams were far better than expected and it was decided that a new band name was in order to bring this stuff to the world. But before anything could be finalized, Vinnie was asked to join KISS full-time, replacing Ace Frehley. A handful of demos were left to wither in obscurity, until now. The new Warrior comp contains the aforementioned demos, some of which may sound familiar to fans of the KISS extended family. Tracks like the slow-burning “Back on the Streets,” which would be covered by other artists as well as Vinnie’s later band The Invasion, sound glitterier and harder in this setting, while the early version of pop song “Baby Oh Why” could almost pass as a new wave number. Also included are instrumental versions and rehearsal takes, making this a must for KISS completists.

When iconic Deep Purple axe master Ritchie Blackmore announced in 2016 that he was returning to metal after years of exile playing primarily renaissance music, the rock world rejoiced. But when he informed that he was resurrecting his second biggest band Rainbow for a few scant dates in Europe without any early core members, that same manic fan base let out a collective sneer. But, the highly anticipated shows did not disappoint, receiving rave reviews and drawing sold-out crowds. Live in Birmingham (Eagle Rock) documents the proceedings in high style.

Aside from the Rainbow moniker not being entirely accurate—the band Blackmore originally launched with Ronnie James Dio on vocals—the set list includes vibrant covers of several Deep Purple numbers such as “Highway Star,” “Burn” and “Perfect Strangers,” alongside Rainbow songs like “Spotlight Kid” and “Man on a Silver Mountain.” But it makes sense, as Blackmore’s relationship with the still-active Purple ones is contentious to say the least, he’s not going to be touring under that moniker anytime soon. But the cover band playing those classics does a fine job backing Blackmore up. See for yourself on this 2-disc set. Sixties psychedelic mop-tops Status Quo morphed into a loud, bluesy arena rock band during the ’70s and are still cranking it out today. A bona fide institution in England, the band didn’t have much luck in cracking the US, but that hasn’t diminished its adoration across the pond.  The Singles Collection 1984-1989 gathers the band’s top 7-inchers from the period, including “The Wanderer” and “Rollin’ Home,” both hits in the UK. As the third of limited ‘Quo singles sets, this one includes 12 7-inch singles in sleeves replicating the originals, along with a deluxe booklet and hard-case box. (Universal)

Speaking of ’60 bands that have weathered all the years and come out ahead, The Who released an impressive box a little while back. Maximum A’s & B’s features all of the band’s A-sides, B-sides and EP tracks (86 in all) in a sprawling six CD set that also includes a 48-page booklet. From the band’s early Mod phase (“Zoot Suit”), to its trailblazing power pop (“Happy Jack”), rock operas, arena rock anthems and even the most recent new music, it’s all here, in crisp, remastered sound in a heavy carrying case. (UMe)

Mod disciples The Jam also have a new box to rave about. The Jam/1977 commemorates 40 years since band’s first releases—when it put out two albums and gained three hit singles in the UK. A reckless mix of R&B-infused mod rock and early punk, the band’s early sound was energized and infectious, as evidenced in tracks like “In the City” and “The Modern World.” The set also includes loads of demos, live tracks and unreleased goodies, across four CDs. There’s also a DVD with TV clips and promo videos from the period. It all comes with a 144-page book, postcards and a slick little box. (Polydor)

For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Cheers, Kaz  

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