50 Years Ago: Mountain Take a ‘Nantucket Sleighride’
A lot was expected of Mountain’s second album when it arrived in January 1971.
Nantucket Sleighride appeared 10 months after their debut, Climbing!, and 10 months before third LP, Flowers of Evil. And while the LP did satisfy their audience, it already offered warning signs about the band’s future.
Songwriting-wise, singer and guitarist Leslie West had seemingly been encouraged to rip with his instrument instead of his pen. The result was some impressive playing but a different balance from that heard on Climbing! Bassist, co-singer and producer Felix Pappalardi came further to the fore, with seven credits to West’s four.
Despite the shift, Nantucket Sleighride was another strong offering, highlighted by the nearly six-minute title track. Referencing the true story of a young man whose whaling vessel became the victim of its prey (which inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick), it also drew on a 400-year-old Scottish folk tune. As they expressed the sadness of distant love and the power of a whale at full speed, West, Pappalardi, drummer Corky Laing and keyboardist Steve Knight demonstrated their genius-level interplay.
Pappalardi had been so taken by Nantucket, Mass., when Laing took him to visit that he moved there — it’s hardly surprising that the area inspired a song. In 1971, he told Sounds, “When I'm out in Nantucket sometimes and the fog rolls in, I think to myself that those dudes leaving their wives and families for three years to go around the Cape and not seeing anybody for that time … it's a long and frightening break, and all those references are there.”
Listen to Mountain's 'Nantucket Sleighride’
Other strong offerings came with “Travellin’ in the Dark (To E.M.P.)” and “The Animal Trainer and the Toad,” both of which were semi-autobiographical – the former about feeling lost on the road and the latter about the pitfalls of the music industry. Both tracks crowbarred a large number of ideas into a compressed space, while never seeming to feel cluttered or overblown. Despite being regarded as one of the world’s first heavy metal bands, there was plenty of prog-rock and psychedelic pop to be found here. And it all felt seamless. “Tired Angels” took on fantasy fiction and paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix, while “My Lady” was closer to a heavy blues classic and “The Great Train Robbery” crossed Southern rock with an early form of glam.
Pappalardi professed himself happy with Mountain’s work, predicting things would get even better. “[Knight’s] treatment of the keyboard in ‘Nantucket Sleighride’ itself, ‘Animal Trainer and the Toad’ and things like that is so broad and his musicianship so good that it can evolve any time, he really can,” the bassist said. “Corky is in the process of arriving at a style. ... I think every album will be that kind of turning point for the band, and if it isn’t, I think it’s a waste of studio time.” He added: “Nantucket is different from Climbing!, and the next is going to be different from all of those, and that’s what I mean by 'innovative.'"
West’s take decades later was different. He’d felt hard-pressed during recording sessions and admitted he struggled to fall in love with the title track because it was so difficult to play. He also became frustrated with the way Pappalardi’s wife and cowriter Gail appeared to be too involved in the band. “I didn’t think much of it to begin with when things were great,” he told Classic Rock in 2014. “Felix is talented, his wife writes the words, she does the artwork, she takes the photos of the group, designs the stage outfits, yada yada, and it’s all easy enough. Then it became too much.”
Listen to Mountain's 'Travellin’ in the Dark (To E.M.P.)’
He recalled being “fucking pissed off” when he got his hands on a copy of Nantucket Sleighride at his London hotel. “Gail’s name was all over the cover,” he said. “Felix and her called all the shots. I was just the lead guitarist and sometimes the lead singer, but she was listed in so many different places it was ridiculous. Even on the cover art she drew herself – just like on the first album she painted herself standing in front of a mountain. I hadn’t realized it before, but then it hit me and left a very bad taste in my mouth.”
Such feelings would lead to the collapse of the original lineup after they completed Flowers of Evil. “I was like Henry Kissinger in the band between Leslie and Felix,” Laing told The Rocktologist. “They had their girlfriends and egos. ... [Everybody] began grabbing for credits and stuff. Leslie was in Woodstock, and Felix had moved to Nantucket as a result of me taking him there. So I was literally commuting ... going back from Nantucket to Woodstock all the time, trying to keep the whole damn thing together. I thought it was insane.”
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