CIRITH UNGOL – Kings Of The Dead
Cirith Ungol 1984 (l-r): Tim Baker, Robert Garven, Michael “Flint” Vujea and Jerry Fogle
Roughly translating as ‘pass of the spider’ from the fictional language Sindarin, the name of Californian heavy metal group Cirith Ungol was lifted from the Lord Of The Rings series, a trilogy of fantasy novels written by English professor J.R.R. Tolkien and published between 1954-55. Located in the western mountains of Mordor, Cirith Ungol is guarded by the spider Shelob who attacked Frodo Baggins according to the fable. 1972 was the year of the metal outfit’s formation.
“Greg (Lindstrom, guitars until 1982) and I were in a band in English class in around seventh grade,” Robert Garven remembers, drummer and co-founder of Cirith Ungol. “It was kind of an outdoor building and we’d always meet before class, talking about music and stuff like that. We talked about starting a band because he was starting to play guitar and I had always wanted to play drums, so we said ‘Hey, let’s get together and start a band.’ We knew this guy Jerry Fogle (guitars until 1987) who was a friend of ours and he was already playing guitar, so we said ‘Well okay, let’s get together as a band with him.’ In English class at the time the required book was Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and so that’s what kind of gave us our first taste of fantasy literature. That’s where we got our name from, but actually we first started off as a band called Titanic.
“We had another guy in the band, Pat Galligan who went on to be in a band named Angry Samoans who were kind of a punk band. I can skip over this briefly though because back then we were playing a lot of Beatles covers and stuff like that, but Greg, me, and Jerry really wanted to go in a heavier direction. Greg would always turn me onto albums; I remember I would go over to his house, and he gave me Climbing! (1970) by Mountain when it first came out. He goes ‘Man, you’ve gotta listen to this record.’ I took it home and I played it, and I was like ‘Wow, this is really great.’ The whole time we were in this band Titanic, we were playing covers and doing some school dances and stuff like that. Me, Jerry, and Greg wanted to split away, and so at one point we said to Pat ‘Hey, this isn’t working out. I think we’re gonna split away and start our own band.’ That’s how Cirith Ungol was formed.”
“We started in seventh grade, so we had five more years of school,” Rob continues. “We were playing places, and this is where I’m gonna put in a shout out to my parents because my mom’s really sick and not doing so well right now, and my dad passed away around ten years ago. We bounced around from parents’ to parents’ houses because no-one would let us play at theirs, and finally we ended up at my parents’ house. They let us practice in my older sister’s bedroom for like maybe I would say seven years at least, from pretty much the time when the band started until we came out with our first album (Frost And Fire, April 1980). If it wasn’t for my parents I’m not sure whether we would’ve had a band because we started off playing at Jerry’s house, and his mom yelled at us that this was too loud. We then started playing at Greg’s house, and Greg’s mom came in one day screaming at us going ‘Turn that off – you guys have to leave.’
“Every year we’d get bigger amplifiers and we’d start playing louder and louder, and so finally we ended up at my parents’ house. Because the neighbours next door were related to us they couldn’t say anything, so we put a big board in the window and we actually had a really cool band room there. That’s where a lot of the early songs on Servants Of Chaos (September 2001) that just got re-released – ‘Last Laugh’, ‘Hype Performance’ – some of Tim’s unbelievable singing on there too… That was all recorded in that bedroom at my parents’ house, and so we’re going to school.
“We’re writing new songs, we’re trying to do stuff. The reason it took so long to get a record out was because we were sending in demo tapes to record companies, and no-one would ever respond. We were trying to set up jobs in LA, and it was really hard to set up jobs unless you were on a record label. It was really hard to play some of the big clubs so we would always play all these Battle Of The Bands – any concerts that we could set up, we tried to set up and play. What really started us off was – and this is where we hit the radar with our first album – we played a Battle Of The Bands, and I think we came in maybe third place. They gave us a $500 gift certificate for a local recording studio. We had never actually been in a real studio before, so we were like ‘Wow, this is really cool.’
“We had a friend named Randy Jackson who had been injured in an oil field accident and almost broke his back. He got a little bit of money, and so he said he would actually pay for the production of our first album. We paid him back of course, but he loaned us some money to actually finish the recording and actually produce our first album, which we produced completely on our own and paid for. All that time went by and it seems like we weren’t doing anything, but back then unless you were on a record label nothing happened. When we put out our first record there wasn’t really anyone in Los Angeles at least that was doing that. Now right after we put out our record, Mötley Crüe, Brian (Slagel) at Metal Blade, and all these guys started putting out their compilations and stuff, but to my knowledge – and I’m not saying no-one before did it – when this new wave of independent heavy rock was coming out we were the first band in Los Angeles to actually record, produce, and release our first album.”
Original vocalist Neal Beattie wasn’t to feature on any of Cirith Ungol’s four studio full-lengths, though recordings including Neal’s vocals do exist. “There are a few songs,” the sticksman confirms, laughing. “He was a great guy, and a great showman. As a matter of fact we played a couple of places, and this was when Iggy And The Stooges was coming out. He threatened to take his clothes off and stuff, and we were actually on the front page in the newspaper: ‘Singer Threatens To Disrobe In Front Of Audience.’ He was in the band for a while, and it’s really kind of sad. I don’t want to say he was a bad singer, because he wasn’t. If you think Iggy (Pop) was a good singer then Neal was a good singer, but we were looking for something… We took ourselves very, very seriously, and a lot of people ask me this. The Mötley Crües, the Ratts and all those hair bands, they were coming out after we put out our first record. To us, they were a joke. We thought of ourselves as a Deep Purple, a Black Sabbath, and all those bands. Cactus, Budgie, Captain Beyond. These are the bands that we were listening to, all the serious rock bands were trying to stand on their music where the music was really important.
“I have a box of some old cassettes though, and that’s another story where the DVD came to fruition. We had a couple of videos of us, and you’ve gotta remember this wasn’t for MTV or any of that crap. With the video of us in Servants Of Chaos, here’s what happened. We’re playing this club, and a guy had a video camera on a tripod up on a balcony. He goes ‘If you pay me $20, I’ll record your show,’ so we bought him a VHS tape, gave it to him as well as $20. The camera had a little microphone on it, and like I mentioned, we were a pretty loud band. We always played really loud and so the video actually looked halfway decent, but the sound of it was just destroyed.
“I was looking through one of these boxes, and I think Tim (Baker, vocals) was over here that day. I was looking through a box, and I go ‘My god, look – I think this is the actual mixing console tape off of that really bad video that we have.’ We played it, and it turned out that it was. Brian said ‘We wanna re-release Servants Of Chaos, and we wanna put some other material on there.’ I said ‘We’ve got this video, and now we have this tape.’ Brian actually has a couple of other tapes, and they may come out – he talked about maybe re-releasing Frost And Fire and King Of The Dead (sophomore full-length, July 1984). We basically have two other videos. Neither one of them I’m not sure are as good as the one on Servants Of Chaos, but both of them are distinctly unusual because on the first one Greg and Jerry are playing together, and on the other one we’re playing at the Roxy and it’s actually a really cool show. We’re hoping that if they re-release Frost And Fire and King Of The Dead, they might put a bonus DVD in there with that.”
The departure of Neal Beattie paved the way for the addition of vocalist Tim Baker, who fronted Cirith Ungol until their May 1992 demise. “I met them in high school,” Tim recalls. “I met Greg first and at the time he had patches and crap on his jacket and stuff like that, Blue Öyster Cult and stuff – bands that I knew. I struck up a conversation with him, and he said ‘I’m in a metal band. you should come up and check us out.’ I said ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ The first time I go up to Rob’s house he hangs his head out of the window and screams ‘Hey, it’s up here,’ so I go up there. Like Rob said, they practised in a bedroom. Full drum set, giant stacks. Greg, Jerry, and Rob playing in a bedroom full blast. I just got blown away the first time I went up there.
“It was just mind-blowingly loud and great, so after that I started hanging out all the time and then me and Rob became really good friends. Greg ended up getting some recording equipment there to do demos and stuff, and Rob and I started playing around with it. After practice we’d go in there and do vocals and just mess around and everything like that, and then we got serious doing it. It just evolved into that, and the whole time they were looking for a singer. Then they didn’t have one so they tried a couple of people and this and that, and then things were going okay. I guess they decided to go with me. That was lucky for me, and that’s how I got in there. At first I was doing sound for the band. Like Rob said, they’d go out and play Battle Of The Bands and stuff like that, and they’d be a three-piece. A lot of the time it would just be instrumental stuff, and I would learn the lines, do the mixing, and all that kind of stuff. It just evolved over time, and I’m glad that it did.”
“Not to plug this re-release, but a lot of people ask us why this came out,” Rob chimes in. “In around 2000 or so Metal Blade Records was contacting me, going ‘Do you guys have any other stuff? Are you guys gonna reform or anything?’ We weren’t really thinking about getting back together, but they said ‘Do you have any other old tapes? Old stuff or anything?’ Me and Greg looked at all of our stuff, and we had a bunch of original recordings. My theory was if we didn’t put this out then this stuff was gonna get lost to history because a lot of the tapes were starting to deteriorate, especially the really good studio tapes. The really expensive tapes were actually starting to fall apart, and they actually had to be sent out to a lady who baked them in an oven like a cake which puts a kind of magnetic powder on the tapes. They ran them through the machine and put them onto a digital audio cassette, and if they hadn’t done that those tapes would’ve been lost forever. All that original stuff that Tim was talking about where we were experimenting around and singing… Like I said, the songs ‘Hype Performance’, ‘Last Laugh’ – those songs on Servants Of Chaos – are ones that we did where our studio was actually a closet in the bedroom.”
“Yeah, it was a four-track machine,” Tim confirms. “Robert and me would go for hours, and just do crazy vocal stuff. It was pretty awesome really.”
“Actually, I thought I sang some really good songs, but they never made it,” Rob laments.
Cirith Ungol didn’t cut an album for Metal Blade Records until the August 1986 issue of third outing One Foot In Hell, though a demo version of ‘Death Of The Sun’ (a finished recording appeared on second outing King Of The Dead) was included on June 1982 compilation Metal Massacre. “We knew that Brian Slagel worked at a place called Oz Records down near Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley,” the drummer discloses. “He goes ‘I want to put out my own records and start my own record company.’ We say ‘Yeah, that’s really cool,’ and he goes ‘Would you guys wanna be on it?’ We said ‘Yeah.’ We had a song called ‘Death Of The Sun’, one of our demo songs. At the same time, we were finishing up production of our first album Frost And Fire. He goes ‘I know these guys who are importers and exporters, and maybe they would be interested in selling your record overseas.’ We met up with these guys, and the company was called Greenworld.
“What we originally did was we’d sell them 500 to a 1000 records, and then they’d sell ’em. They were actually importing records into Europe, so they weren’t a big record company but a distribution company. After a week they called back and said ‘Can we have another 1000?,’ so we sold quite a few records through ’em. They then finally came over one night – it was probably a bunch of bullshit and lies – and said ‘We really wanna support the band, and take you guys onto the next level’ and this and that, so we sold the rights off originally to this company Greenworld. At the same time Brian was coming out with his first Metal Blade record ever – Metal Massacre – which we were on, and we always reflect back there, thinking ‘What if we hadn’t gone with these Greenworld guys, and maybe stuck with Brian?’ Maybe we’d actually be big and famous like Brian is now (laughs).”
Greenworld would eventually morph into Enigma Records. “After a while Greenworld got to the point where they were distributing a number of bands, so they said ‘Let’s turn ourselves into a kind of pseudo-record company,’” Tim explains. “That’s when they changed over to Enigma. They were more kind of a semi-record company, but they were still kind of the same thing. They just had a different name so they could promote themselves as a record company. They didn’t have the resources to promote us though. Like I said, they were more or less a distribution company and had a pipeline to just distribute stuff. They really had no idea what they were doing, to tell you the truth. We would’ve been much better off if we had waited and signed with Metal Blade instead, but at the time that wasn’t really rolling yet or anything. We just did what we felt we had to do at the time to get our record out there. I’m sure that the company doesn’t exist anymore, so that just tells you what kind of a good business model they had. All they wanted to do was have us hand them a finished product, and just more or less distribute it. They weren’t really a record company, because they weren’t promoting or anything like that at all.”
“I remember this, and Tim will remember this too,” Rob offers. “This is what they said: ‘Instead of producing one or two records and hoping they’ll make it we’ll try to put out a 100 records, throw them against the wall, and see which ones stick.’”
“And that’s who they’d throw the money at,” Tim finishes. “It was kind of a bad deal, but it’s just the way things were back then.”
“When King Of The Dead came out I remember showing it to Brian, and Brian had actually started his label then,” Rob reminisces. “It had some bands and it was kind of primitive, but he was still getting his first start. He looked at me and goes ‘This should’ve been on my label,’ and I’m thinking ‘Probably, yeah.’ At the time though, we didn’t do that to cut him out or anything. We were just focused on trying to get up to the big time, and I gotta tell you this… If you read the Martin Popoff books on these bands (Ye Olde Metal), with a lot of these bands that we worshipped like Trapeze or Captain Beyond or any of these early, heavy bands – Sir Lord Baltimore, Dust, or whoever – their stories are so much more depressing and sad than the story of our band it makes me feel good. Greg gave me this book for Christmas, and I said to Greg ‘Thank you for giving me this book, because I feel seriously suicidally depressed over our whole band. After reading these stories about these bands I worshipped…’ I saw Captain Beyond open for Black Sabbath at the Hollywood Bowl, and these guys are like Gods. I’m reading in the book that they were so broke that they had to take turns eating meals like once a day or something.
“We were the first band Enigma signed, and the second band they signed was Mötley Crüe. I’ve gotta clear up some stuff about this too… They actually had some guy from Grass Valley – it’s a city up in northern California – and he spent around $300,000 or more promoting the band. When they got signed to Enigma, they were all like ‘Wow, not only do we have a band here but we got a guy who’s gonna spend a bunch of money on ’em.’ Within a really short period of time though, the big record companies saw ‘Well not only here’s a band, but here is someone who’s gonna promote ’em and pay that money’ so they moved off to Elektra. From what we understand they actually never paid the guy back, and ripped the guy off who gave them a start.
“You can put every one of those bands in a hat, and I have little respect for any of them. Those hair bands were a joke. We played with Ratt, with all these creepy bands, and they were just disgusting. Not only that, they screwed us on the sound. Like I said, I’m reading a book right now by Martin Popoff on all these old heavy metal bands that Greg gave me called Ye Olde Metal: 1968 To 1972, and in there is Captain Beyond. As a matter of fact, I talked to him the other day. He told me that when he puts out the 1980 version of Ye Olde Metal he’s gonna put a Cirith Ungol section in there, but Captain Beyond said that they played the Hollywood Bowl with Alice Cooper. They screwed them on the sound and the lights, and that was our life story. Every time we opened up for a band, they’d go ‘You can use half the mixing board, and we’ll give you three lights.’ We’re playing at a big concert or let’s say a big club in Los Angeles, and you have half the sound and half the lights.”
“Gamesmanship sucked back in those days,” Tim complains. “It’s probably the same now, but everybody just had to make sure that you looked like shit so they could make themselves look a little bit better. That was just part of the games, but it didn’t really bother us. We’d just crank it up, and just blow their heads off.”
“I’ll tell you.. Not a lot of good videos exist of us,” Rob admits. “The one on the DVD is actually okay, but when our band was playing at its peak and when we were on our game, with any band we played with or at at any show we played we’d just blow people away. I’m not bragging and I’m not just trying to be overly confident, but Tim’s voice was like a razorblade. We always had giant amps so we were just blasting, and I’d be beating my drums. I used to play drums so hard I’d actually cut my hands, and I’d have blood all over my drum set for a while.”
Much of the material included on Cirith Ungol’s aforementioned inaugural full-length – April 1980’s Frost And Fire – was composed by guitarist Greg Lindstrom. “We had this $500 from the Battle Of The Bands, and we actually came in third,” Rob divulges. “There’s a funny story to that. With the band that won, their amps blew up or something, so we loaned them an amp. It was primitive back in the 70s, and most of the other bands in town were pretty crappy. We actually had a couple of people that were good roadies, and even Tim was a roadie for a while. We played somewhere and I think we would’ve came in first place, but we loaned one of our amps to this other band. Basically with Battle Of The Bands’ back then, they wanted bands to play dances so that guys and girls could get together. This is like a beach town, so they wouldn’t have a concert but a dance so some guy could make some money off of all the young kids in town. It’s not like a prom but more like a dance, and everyone would show up drunk or get stoned or whatever and go dancing together.
“Obviously our music wasn’t dance music, and this is where I’ll throw in something that Tim can back up. We were playing one of these Battle Of The Bands or something, and some people were actually dancing to our music. I used to sing background vocals, and sometimes I would yell out something in my microphone. I remember yelling out at these guys in the crowd, going ‘All you dancing fools sit down’ or something like that. A lot of guys have been getting laughs at that over the years, but someone asked me recently in an interview ‘How did you want your audiences to react?’ I saw Black Sabbath at the Hollywood Bowl and Emerson, Lake And Palmer at Long Beach Arena, and with a lot of these big concerts the actual audiences were pretty much awestruck. People weren’t dancing, and there was no headbanging. Back then a lot of people were smoking pot, so a lot of people were stoned. They were sitting in their seats almost like they were mesmerised by the music, almost as if you went to a symphony in concert. The fact that some people were almost dancing to our music was almost insulting to me. You wouldn’t dance at a Beethoven symphony.
“We had this $500, and we borrowed money from our friends. We’re thinking ‘Okay, if we’re gonna make it big we’re gonna have to get some airplay and get signed to a big label,’ because even on this independent label that we were on they were never gonna give us tour support and there was no money involved. They were just gonna release our records, or sell them to Europe. The plan was to make a record that was acceptable. Out here at the time, if you didn’t get airplay you were nothing and you couldn’t get signed – you couldn’t get anything. There were some heavy rock stations who’d play ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath (from the September 1970 album of the same name) or at least some of the top hits by some of the heavy bands, so we put out Frost And Fire using almost all of Greg’s songs.
“Even though we had a bunch of other songs which finally showed up on King Of The Dead, a lot of the songs Greg wrote seemed to be more commercially viable. Some of the songs like ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘Maybe That’s Why’ had lyrics that we thought were commercially acceptable, so we put out this record. The one station in LA – KRLA that played a lot of rock stuff – played it a couple of times, and then they said ‘This is way too heavy stuff – we can’t play this.’ At that time Greg was leaving the band, because he decided that he wanted to go in a different direction. We wanted to go even heavier, so we’re going ‘Shit, if that was our commercial stuff and it was too heavy.’ We decided that it was bullshit, and said ‘With our next album, we’re gonna do it the way we want to do it.’”
“Like Rob was saying, Frost And Fire was never meant to be an album that was on sale to the public,” Tim reminds. “It was our attempt to get a record deal with a big company, so that’s why it’s more like a demo for us. At the time the only way to get a record deal was to put together cassettes, and send them to record companies. They’d throw them in the trash, and then we’d send another cassette to another record company or management company and they’d throw it in the trash. We thought that if we put out a real album – the whole professional looking thing – and shopped that around, it would show these guys that we were on the ball and this is what we could actually do. It was never meant to be a general release to the public, but was more of a demo to get a record deal. Like Rob said, it just kind of evolved into getting released to the public and just steamrolled from there into the next couple of records.”
“Tim was mentioning this, and I totally agree,” Rob concurs. “We thought this was gonna get our foot in the door, because you asked what we did for all these years before we put out our first record. We were driving down to LA, we were sitting in front of record companies. One of us would run in past security, and try to get our cassette on their desk. Ted Templeman who did Montrose’s first album (Montrose, October 1973) was a good producer, and I kept sending him copies of tapes. There was this one guy who worked for Apple Records, and he kept going down to all these concerts trying to get backstage to talk to the managers.
“We met Rush; Rush was playing at the Whisky A-Go-Go, and we were trying to get to play down the Whisky A-Go-Go. One of our friends goes ‘Hey, there’s this band from Canada called Rush who’s really good,’ so we go ‘Well, let’s go down and see them and we’ll talk to the booking agent.’ When we showed up that night we were the only ones there to see Rush, so if you can believe this, Rush was playing at the Whisky A-Go-Go and there was like four people in the crowd, and it was all the members of Cirith Ungol (laughs). We actually went backstage, met the guys in Rush, hung out, and kind of made a little bit of friends with them. We were asking them ‘How do we break into the big time?’ They go ‘Well, there’s this big music convention in LA. Maybe you should go down there, schmooze the guys, and hang out,’ so we’d go to all these weird functions. We always had all these cassette tapes of the band, and they were getting us nowhere.”
“That’s really why Frost And Fire came about,” Tim adds.
“And right about that time though, like I said, we were one of the first bands to do that,” Rob continues. “After we released our first album – maybe it was happening all together, or maybe people saw what we did – within a matter of six months of us releasing our first album Mötley Crüe had an album out (Too Fast For Love, November 1981), Brian had his first album out. They saw that these big record companies didn’t have a big stranglehold any more on at least the distribution of albums. Maybe they could still have stopped them from being played on the air, but if you make your own records you can get it out there. Right now a similar thing is happening with the internet. You don’t even need to make a record any more; all you have to do is have a website and have music, and people can download it.”
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