Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Steel: Steel Mill—He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)

[purchase Chapter and Verse]
[purchase Born to Run (the book)]

What would Lynryd Skynyrd have sounded like if it was fronted by a kid from Jersey named Springsteen? Check out “He’s Guilty” by Steel Mill, a band from 1969-70 featuring Bruce Springsteen on vocals and guitar, future E Street Band members Danny Federici on keyboards and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums, and “Little” Vinny Roslin on bass.

Bruce’s first band was The Castiles. When that band broke up, he joined a hard rock band called Earth, then formed Child, which then became Steel Mill, when another band had already registered as Child. As Springsteen described Steel Mill in his excellent autobiography Born To Run:

It was blue-collar, heavy music with loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound. If you mixed it up with a little prog and all original songs, you had Steel Mill . . . you know, STEEL MILL . . .like LED ZEPPELIN… elemental-metal-based, bare-chested, primal rock. 

After becoming a big deal in Jersey, and somewhat surprisingly, in Richmond, Virginia, the band decided it needed to head to San Francisco and teach the hippies about rock n’ roll. Auditioning at the Matrix (the club co-founded by Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane) they got a gig opening for Boz Scaggs, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. Steel Mill was apparently good enough that a critic from the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “Never have I been so surprised by completely unknown talent.” Shades of Jon Landau’s famous quote from a few years later, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” You can hear a bootleg of one of the Matrix shows here.

Steel Mill got to play a few shows at the legendary Fillmore (where Bruce heard future band mate Nils Lofgren’s band Grin perform), and were well enough received that Bill Graham offered to record demos, one of which was “The Judge Song.” But nothing happened. Instead, they returned to New Jersey, where they could make a living.

Over the next few years, Steel Mill went through personnel changes (including a period with Steve van Zandt on bass). Springsteen explored different musical styles in bands named Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom (early- to mid-1971), the Sundance Blues Band (mid-1971), and the Bruce Springsteen Band (mid-1971 to mid-1972), before getting signed to Columbia Records and, ultimately forming the E Street Band.

“He’s Guilty” was never officially released until last year’s Chapter and Verse, the companion musical collection to the autobiography. The official version is edited down a little from the original, which can be found on some bootlegs, but I couldn’t find one online to post.

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