The enduring legacy of 1981’s best American metal album
By the late ‘90s I’d done my heavy metal apprenticeship. My collection included all the classic LPs by Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Voivod, Slayer, and Metallica. But I still had a long way to go when it came to discovering the best of the rest.
I’ll never forget the summer day I spent eating stuffed peppers and pulling tubes at the Village Idiot band house in Southeast Portland, where a group of sweaty, stoned heshers turned me on to the glory of Riot.
The dozen odd albums in Riot’s catalog don’t truly measure up to the runs that Van Halen or Scorpions mustered. But there’s still a lot of killer rock to enjoy. One album in particular–career highlight and fan favorite Fire Down Under–is truly on par with its contemporaries. And yes, that means I’m unapologetically stacking it right next to two legendary albums that came immediately before and after: Judas Priests’ British Steel, and Iron Maiden’s Killers.
Riot was birthed in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn in the mid-1970s by some nice Italian boys who cared about their craft, and ignored the siren call of punk rock. Sure, the speed and intensity of punk spoke to them, but these were clean cut dudes who just wanted to rock like their idols in Montrose, Rainbow and Thin Lizzy.
Founding guitarist Mark Reale discovered pop singer Guy Speranza on the same Brooklyn block party circuit that both were playing. Once they joined forces under the name Riot (named for variations on Honeymooner Ralph Kramden’s line, “You’re a riot, Alice!”) they rehearsed like madmen in a parent’s garage until it was time to hit the club circuit in the city. After a Monday night gig at Max’s Kansas City, Riot was going on.
For better or worse, the band was discovered in its early stages by record producers and would-be managers Steve Loeb and Billy Arnell. The ambitious partners were aces in the studio, but their managerial skills were a mixed bag that ran Riot’s career onto the rocks so many times that there’s a real Spinal Tap aftertaste to the entire story.
The naïve young band signed away their rights and lives to these two madmen. On the plus side, they made two good albums in succession. Rock City and Narita sounded big, and the songs continued to improve as the band honed its chops in the studio and on the road. They started playing bigger gigs, landing tours with Sammy Hagar in Texas and the UK. They also supported AC/DC on part of the Highway To Hell tour. There was even a deal inked with Capitol Records, though product was only issued overseas.
By the end of 1980 Riot had become honorary members of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal–despite being Americans. Their blend of hooky hard rock, and proto-speed metal was inspired, solid, and deep in the pocket. In fact it could be said that Riot was so in the pocket that they’ve become almost invisible.
Nevertheless, Loeb and Arnell finally cajoled Elektra into buying out Riot’s contract and issuing a proper album. Fire Down Under caught the band at its peak. Reale, Speranza, and second guitarist Rick Ventura made the cut, but the old rhythm section was dismissed without explanation. A package deal of Kip Leming on bass and Sandy Slavin on drums took the band’s chops to another level.
The album kicks off with Riot’s best-known song. “Swords and Tequila” is a barnburner, no doubt. But losing the thread there is like getting hung up on “Smoke on the Water” or “Welcome To The Jungle.” Regardless, it’s a genuine slice of American metal that would have fit right in on British Steel, though Speranza never reaches for Halford’s highs. His unique voice was one of a kind, leaning more toward Steve Perry of Journey’s vocal quality, imbued with the swagger of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott.
Next up is the title track, a ripper with the intricacy and speed of early Iron Maiden. It’s no surprise that Riot ended up being so influential on Metallica and the generation of thrashier metal bands that were just forming around this time. Too bad Riot were just far enough ahead of the curve to slip between its cracks.
For my money, the best song on Fire Down Under is “Feel the Same,” penned by Rick Ventura. Not quite as leaden as Sabbath, it’s a stomping slab of heaviness that shows off Riot’s ability to clobber and groove. At four and a half minutes, it’s one of the longer songs on the album, and compares favorably to other classic monster rockers like Rainbow’s “Stargazer.”
There is no reason on earth that “Outlaw” shouldn’t be played by classic rock radio every day. If Clear Channel can make space in their playlists for Foreigner, there’s no sense in ignoring such an obvious hit. The chorus about a gambling desperado just doesn’t quit, and maybe that’s its one fatal flaw. They do beat it into the ground… but so do most hit singles, right?
Bet your life on the silver ball,
Spin it, ’round the wheel.
Will it land on the black or the red?
The outlaw’s got no deal.
Side One wraps with “Don’t Bring Me Down.” This boogie number recalls classic ZZ Top and Bon Scott-era AC/DC. It also gives Speranza the chance to tell a bad date that she smells “like gorilla dump.”
Side Two shreds in with the carving riffs of “Don’t Hold Back.” Deep Purple may have broken the speed barrier with “Fireball,” but Riot more than holds its own here. This high-energy love song broaches Dio territory, with references to rainbows, diamond skies, and crystal ships.
Delving deeper into Ritchie Blackmore’s neoclassical forest of legend is “Altar of the King.” Beyond the medieval intro, it’s probably the most overtly metal song on the album, and a great entry point for listeners who prefer shades of darkness. This one presages many later songs by artists like Accept and Mercyful Fate.
“No Lies” follows, another should-have-been-a-hit in the mold of “Outlaw.” Sounds a bit like Maiden covering Free to me. There’s such an infectious enthusiasm in this era of Riot’s music. The band had never played or sounded better. The potential was palpable.
The last proper song on the album is “Run For Your Life.” After a short intro, the unrelenting speed returns on a runaway train that carries a simple message down the rails. Maybe I’m sniffing between the lines here, but it seems like a warning against cocaine abuse—a message that Riot’s managers failed to receive.
The album concludes with a boast track called “Flashbacks.” This medley of crowd noise and introductions at various major festivals celebrated the band finally receiving its due after years of hard work. Not all critics got the message; some found it to be a waste of grooves. The whole bit coalesces into a heavy riff beneath chants of the band’s name, and considering the quality of the album, I’m more than happy to allow Riot its four minutes of celebration.
Four minutes is about all they got, though.
Just prior to recording Fire Down Under, Riot was the support band on the infamous Black and Blue tour, with Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult. Following the album’s release, they were Rush’s sole support on the Moving Pictures tour. Riot was playing to huge crowds, poised with a top shelf major label album, and strong interest from Cliff Burnstein of Q Prime management. Burnstein was the guy who signed Rush to Mercury, and later managed Metallica’s career. If anyone could have taken Riot to the next level, it was him.
Unfortunately Loeb and Arnell refused to allow Riot to level up by escaping their contractual clutches. And at the moment when the band should have shot into the stratosphere where they belonged, shining among contemporaries like Van Halen, Guy Speranza quit the band. In his defense, he’d been barely paid a dime during his tenure. He left to get married and settle down in Florida, sitting behind a desk at a pest control company.
Though Riot found an able replacement in singer Rhett Forrester, it was a big ask of the fan base to stick with them. Likewise, Elektra dumped them after the decent Restless Breed album failed to match the sales of Fire Down Under.
Years before Eddie graced the cover of Iron Maiden’s debut, Mighty Tior the avenging seal adorned Riot’s albums. While it was endearing and even premonitory to mark their albums with a mascot, it’s hard to imagine a figure more off-putting and uncommercial. Eddie may have scared away sophisticates and grownups, but he lured in teenage boys like the Pied Piper. Mighty Tior only managed to encourage a fraction of those same youths to sneak their albums to the counter amongst a stack of records with cooler covers.
The tragedies of Riot go beyond their mismanagement. Dokken used its own deal with Elektra to become stars. And only two years after Fire Down Under, a west coast band with the too-close-for-comfort name Quiet Riot landed the first ever heavy metal album to top the Billboard album chart.
While so many other NWOBHM acts and lesser-knowns from the heyday of metal were able to reunite successfully, the most crucial members of Riot fell off the board like toy soldiers. Guy Speranza died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. His replacement, Rhett Forrester had been shot and killed during a carjacking incident in 1994. And guitarist Mark Reale, the heart and soul of Riot, finally succumbed to Crohn’s Disease in 2012.
A sanctioned tribute band called Riot V continues to tour and record, but the longest standing member is bassist Don Van Stavern, who originally joined Riot in 1986. We can marvel at the myriad misfortunes, but the lucky break here for Riot and its vast number of potential fans is that their recorded catalog still exists. The albums sound great. They’re not incredibly rare or scarce or overpriced. And amongst that fine catalog is a true masterpiece, now celebrating 40 years.