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November 16, 2020

FTV: Laurence Gordon Laing

  Quick:  Which of these names does not sound like it belongs on this list of iconic rock musicians?  Keith Moon, Leslie West, Jimi Hendrix, Felix Pappalardi, John Lennon, Jack Bruce, or Laurence Gordon Laing?  If you guessed the last one, you get a gold star, but note that I did NOT say ‘does not belong’ on the list.  If I had listed Laing using his more recognizable moniker of ‘Corky’, you may still have thought that he doesn’t belong on this short ‘A-list’ of rock royalty.  For the record, Laurence Gordon grew up as the youngest of five children in Montreal, Canada and was called ‘Corky’ because his sibs had a hard time pronouncing either of his given names.  We can add one more nickname as John Lennon called him ‘Mr. Energy’, but more on that later.  Perhaps we should explain why he is on this list by starting with his first notable band, Energy.

     Energy was slated to open for The Who at a Montreal hockey arena.  Wandering underneath the stage, Laing spied Keith Moon’s sequined Union Jack coat and decided that as long as it fit him, he might as well take it back to his own dressing room.  As he told Dave Ling in Classic Rock Magazine (Issue 271, February 2020), “[When Moon realised his jacket was gone] I could hear the yelling from the room next door.  ‘Me jacket!  Where’s me jacket?  Me grandma made it for me and I left it under the stage.  I can’t believe it is gone!’’ Seized by a bout of conscience, Laing knocked on The Who’s dressing room door:  “[Moon said] ‘Me jacket!  You’re a gentleman!  I can’t believe you’ve got me jacket!’ and he gave me a big kiss right on the lips.”  When Laing admitted that he was going to steal it, the room got real quiet and he assumed the mercurial Moon was about to plant something else on his kisser:  “[Moon the Loon rushed forward, grabbed me in an embrace and said] But ya didn’t mate, did ya?  Ya didn’t!” and he rewarded Laing with another kiss.   They remained good friends and Laing was inspired by Moon enough to pattern much of his drum technique after Moon’s unconventional style.

     As for meeting John Lennon, he decided to forge phony press credentials to crash John and Yoko’s 1969 Montreal bed-in for peace.  Once he was at their bedside, the ever honest Laing confessed, “I’m very sorry, but I’m not a newspaper writer.  I’m just a musician in a local band that would do anything to meet you.  I’ll just leave.”  Amazed at the kid’s kutzpa, Lennon invited him to sit down and talk music.  He liked the kid’s band name, Energy, and they shared a few minutes discussing songs and song-writing.  As he departed, Lennon commented on Laing’s display of testosterone, calling him ‘Mr. Energy’ as he left.  Years later, Laing would find himself adding backing vocals to Lennon’s 1975 Rock N Roll album.  Talk about making connections!

     Laing’s history with Mountain’s Felix Pappalardi goes back even farther in time.  In 1967, Pappalardi asked Energy to come with him to New York to help him audition for a position as a producer for Atlantic Records.  Pappalardi got the job and by 1969, he was producing Cream.  At this same time, Energy made a leap of faith.  They moved to New York to try and take the next step up in their own career.  Pappalardi and Leslie West appeared at Woodstock with the original lineup of Mountain.  A short time later, Felix called Laing to see if he was interested in filling the drum throne when their original drummer, ND Smart, departed.  Although he was hesitant to abandon the two mates he had made the jump to New York with, Laing eventually accepted the offer.  It seemed prudent to go with the band that had better prospects, so Corky joined Mountain on September 12, 1969.  Best known for the hit Mississippi Queen, most people are unaware that the song was built from a chorus that Laing had created on the spot at an outdoor Energy gig years earlier.

     According to Laing, Energy was playing on Nantucket on a sweltering summer night in 1969.  The island’s limited electricity supply was taxed by the large number of air conditioners in use.  This caused an island-wide power failure in the middle of their set.  Lang had spied what he called ‘a goregeous southern babe’ named Molly dancing with his friend Roy Bailey.  When the power went out and the music stopped, Laing was fearful he would lose track of Molly so he began beating his cowbell and bellowing out the words, “Mississippi queen, do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean?” over and over to get her attention.  It didn’t work as she left with the aforementioned Roy Bailey, but the gig left Laing with two long lasting outcomes:  “After screaming so loudly and for so long that night, I gave myself chronic laryngitis and it screwed up my voice forever.”  The second thing he carried away from that night was the kernal of a hit song.

     When Mountain needed one more song for their first album, Laing shared the cowbell driven chorus (which his Energy bandmates were never interested in turning into complete as a song).  Guitarist Leslie West added the iconic guitar riff to it and in a short time, they had written the completed song around the cowbell driven riff.  Corky assumed the cowbell would be deleted from the final mix, but producer/bass player Pappalardi said, “No, I think it’s kinda cool,” so it stayed.  Watching concert clips of the song today, it takes but four beats of the cowbell to get the crowd up and screaming in anticipation of the hit.  West had released an earlier solo album simply entirled Mountain (a reference to West’s size), but when the album Climbing! hit the streets in March of 1970, Mississippi Queen became the anthem for the summer of 1970.  Mountain, by now the band’s name, was announced as the next big thing.  It stuck with us enough that my friends and I spent the summer of 1970 greeting each other with “Mississippi Queen!” rather than “hey” or “hello”.  Mississippi Queen would remain THE ‘cowbell’ song until Saturday Night Live immortalized Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper with the “more cowbell” skit.

     Though Laing wasn’t at Woodstock with Mountain, he still managed to collect royalties from the movie and sound rack.  The Woodstock tracks were being buffed up at The Record Plant in New York at the same time Mountain was recording in the same studio.  Contrary to popular belief, many of the music tracks heard in both the film and on the Woodstock soundtrack album were not of great quality and had to be sweetened in the studio.  Laing was asked to help doctor the drum parts for Ten Years After’s explosive I’m Going Home:  “A mic on (TYA drummer) Ric’s drums had failed [during the recording at the festival], and I had to re-record his parts to I’m Going Home.  I didn’t even know who Ten Years After was, let alone how their song went.  I’m Going Home was twenty nine minutes long [the CRM editor points out that it was actually less than ten minutes] and [guitarist] Alvin Lee kept speeding up and slowing down, so it was quite a challenge.”  Not only did Laing receive royalties, he also got a gold record for his work.  Corky earned  a second gold record for his own song that was used in the movie – For Yasgur’s Farm.

     The iconic Mountain era (which included keyboardist Steve Knight), lasted until 1971 with a half live/half studio album called Flowers of Evil signaling the end of this lineup.  Laing remembers Pappalardi’s wife, Gail Collins as a factor in the band’s increasing levels of animosity. The other two legs of the stool that contributed to the band’s collapse were the old rock and roll standbys:  drugs and ego.  Collins had written lyrics for both Mountain and with Jack Bruce (from Cream), so it was a rather natural progression when the band West, Bruce, and Laing became the next ‘super group’.  Their 1972-73 albums (Why Don’tcha and Whatever Turns You On as well as a swansong live set called Live ‘N’ Kicking) sold well, but the WBL group really couldn’t tour the states.  Bruce had been banned from the United States as a ‘registered drug user’ but he still blamed West and Laing for the band breaking up.  Bruce claimed that West and Laing had scuttled the band, but to this day, Laing denies it.

     A 1974 reunion of the band that included Pappalardi (and produced the double-live album Twin Peaks) was, as Laing described it, “A desperate act.”  Out on his own, Corky began working on a solo album in 1977.  The list of friends he brought in to help make the 1977 album included Eric Clapton, Dickey Betts, and Randall Bramlett.  Called Makin’ It On The Street, it sold modestly but led to a deal with Elektra Records for a follow up LP that would include contributions by West, Pappalardi, Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, Todd Rundgren, and John Sebastian.  With the arrival of the punk movement, the album was shelved for twenty one years, finally being released as The Secret Sessions (with a vinyl re-release in 2018).  Laing remembers the period well:  “That record had taken years to make, all kinds of musicians stopped by to jam, each of them was a friend,  I still believe that the music stood up, and the positive reviews reflect that belief.  But [when it was mothballed] I was heartbroken.  That was a very dark time for me.”

     By 1985, West and Laing were ready to climb that Mountain once again (but without Pappalardi who had been shot to death by his wife, Gail Collins, two years earlier – some think because Pappalardi said he was going to leave her.  She maintained that it was accidental).  This Mountain fell when Laing and West had a disagreement over the writing credits and royalties for various songs form their back catalog (including Mississippi Queen).  Laing moved on forming a band called The Mix (with former Hendrix bass player Noel Redding and guitarist Eric Schenkman from The Spin Doctors), and he later toured with MeatLoaf.  Laing even gave it a go as a suit serving as A&R vice president of PolyGram Records in Canada from 1989 to 1995 (“Yeah, I became a weasel”).

     Never say never.  In 1992, West and Laing once again joined forces to promote a two-disc Mountain anthology called Over The Top.  This new spirit of cooperation led to two new albums (Man’s World and The Mystic Fire).  A rather strange collection of Bob Dylan songs was released in 2007 (Masters of War) that featured guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne and Warren Haynes (from Gov’t Mule).  The band Mountain hasn’t performed together since 2010, but West continues to perform solo.  West nearly died before having his right leg amputated below the knee due to complications from type-2 diabetes, but the problems between the two Mountain men began long before West’s health scare.  According to Laing, “What happened in our last year together was that Leslie really stopped caring – all you need to do is go on to YouTube for proof.  I really wish that wasn’t so, but it’s pretty pathetic.”  The continuing disagreements about the rights to Mississippi Queen also played a part.  As the old Led Zeppelin lyric says, “Mountains crumble to the sea.”

     Corky Laing’s Mountain is keeping the music alive with Chris Shutterson guitar and Mark Mikel on bass and vocals.  Laing is happy with the band, stating, “I’ve been through fifty years’ worth of musicians, and I’m not going to lie and tell you that all of them were great, but these guys really nail it.”  While he feels rock music may have passed its ‘sell by date’, he keeps playing.  Having turned 72 in January of this year, he sums up his future:  “Most of my contemporaries are either dirt-napping, broke, or no longer have the ability or the inclination.  But not me.  I will continue doing this because I still love it.  I’m in music:  I’m not in the music business.”

     As is our habit, we will be spinning the music of Corky Laing and Mountain around the time this From The Vaults goes to press.  Tune in to WOAS FM 88.5 or check us out on the web at www.woas-fm.org.

Top Piece Video:  How can one name check ‘Mississippi  Queen’ without playing it?