Leslie West didn’t do anything by halves. After seeing his favourite band, Cream, in New York in 1967, the then 22-year-old guitarist devoted his life to practising and playing, in order to up his game and compete with the big boys.
His efforts paid off: his group Mountain played a pivotal role in the birth of heavy metal, and West – who Jeff Beck once described as the “the greatest living guitarist in the world” – jammed with Jimi Hendrix, was invited to join the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and was hired by The Who to play on Who’s Next.
“I wanted a guitar sound that sounded like three guitars,” he once explained of the technique that underpinned Mountain – a thunderous yet effectively simple fuzz that the likes of Kyuss and Monster Magnet would pick up and run with 20 years later.
Behind the scenes, things were less straightforward. Mountain’s earliest line-up was plagued with internal tensions, drug problems and even bullying – drummer Corky Laing once claimed that the band’s early days felt like “being in boot camp”, thanks to the relentless demands of bassist Felix Pappalardi. But by the mid-70s West had taken hold of the creative reins, and held them until his death in 2020.
Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife, Gail Collins, in 1983. West’s own life nearly came to an equally sudden end in 2011 when, during a flight to a gig in Biloxi, Mississippi, West’s right leg turned blue due to complications with diabetes. He was rushed to hospital, where surgeons had no option but to amputate his lower leg in order to save his life.
Thankfully, West recovered, and his career continued. His final three albums – 2011's Unusual Suspects, 2013's Still Climbing and 2015's Soundcheck – featured guest appearances from Slash, Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons, Zakk Wylde, Dee Snider, Mark Tremonti, Johnny Winter, Peter Frampton and Brian May among others. The big man with the big sound had finally received his due respect.
Taking their name from West’s solo album released the year before, with Climbing! Mountain set out their store emphatically. It opens with drummer Corky Laing’s cowbell-introduction to Mississippi Queen, which became both the group’s signature song and one of the defining anthems of the era.
Other highlights include For Yasgur’s Farm (a misty-eyed ode to the Woodstock festival they’d played the previous summer), the riff frenzy of Never In My Life, and a wonderful version of the Pete Brown/Jack Bruce song Theme For An Imaginary Western that features a truly majestic guitar solo from West.
A terrific follow-up to Climbing!, Nantucket Sleighride added new layers to the band’s sound without compromising their primal qualities.
The lengthy, keyboard-daubed title track, written by Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail Collins and intended to evoke the experience of being towed along in a tiny rowing boat by a harpooned whale, remains its most enduring moment, thanks partly to West’s scintillating vocal performance. It even had an unlikely afterlife when a tub-thumping section of the track was used as the theme to UK TV politics show Weekend World. The rest of the album offered an equally exhilarating rush.
Given West’s larger-than-life persona and his latter-day stewardship of the band, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Felix Pappalardi was Mountain’s senior partner in their early days. Even before Mountain, the former Cream producer was exerting an influence on the guitarist, producing and playing on sessions for this, West’s first album.
As well as co-writing eight of its 11 songs – including future live favourites Blood Of The Sun and Dreams Of Milk And Honey – Pappalardi helped formulate the gutsy, bottom-heavy roar for which their future band would become famous.
In typical early-70s fashion, Mountain’s third album was split 50/50 between the studio and live tracks. Side One comprised five new songs, including the Baudelaire-referencing title track offering a humanitarian comment on a soldier returning from Vietnam, and the measured One Last Kiss, which showed a deeper, more melodic side to the band.
Side Two featured the 25-minute live extravaganza Dream Sequence, showcasing some extraordinary chops as the group jammed through Roll Over Beethoven and Dreams Of Milk And Honey, before closing with Mississippi Queen.
Uniting Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing with Cream bassist Jack Bruce during one of Mountain’s many fallow periods made sense on paper, but the combustible chemistry between the Mountain duo and the gifted but sullen Bruce ensured the union lasted just two studio albums and one live record.
Still, the combination of personalities lent a brilliantly unpredictable edge to their first album, and tracks like The Doctor, Love Is Worth The Blues and a powerful take on Willie Dixon’s Third Degree suggested their star should have shone a while longer.
After a run of decent but predictable solo albums (along with Mountain’s 2007 Bob Dylan tribute album Masters Of War, featuring Ozzy on the title track), few would have anticipated just how good West’s penultimate album would be.
With guests including Slash, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, and Zakk Wylde, it found West raising his game, playing and singing better than he had in years on the likes of Mud Flap Mama, Legend and One More Drink For The Road. The album should have given his career a huge boost, but his leg amputation scuppered it.
Free of both Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing, West asked Mick Jagger to play rhythm guitar on his second solo album, the proposal tickling the Rolling Stones singer’s sense of the perverse. Jagger appears on High Roller, a track that West once appropriately described as sounding like “Brown Sugar played backwards”.
The Great Fatsby also sees the enterprising West adapting Tim Hardin’s evergreen If I Were A Carpenter, Free’s Little Bit Of Love, the Stones’ Honky Tonk Women and the made-famous-by-the-Animals House Of The Rising Sun for his own ends, all of which produced surprisingly impressive results.
Recorded in Japan in 1973 during a reunion tour without drummer Corky Laing on board, Twin Peaks is a double-live album that continues to polarise opinion.
Detractors point to the exhausting, 31-minute rendition of Nantucket Sleighride that serves as its sprawling centrepiece, not to mention the inclusion of a lengthy guitar solo from West. But the wide-tread ferocity of Never In My Life and the irresistible Crossroader – a Cream-influenced gem originally recorded for Flowers Of Evil – prove that when Mountain dropped the showboating to perform actual songs they were masters of their craft.
Known as Mystic Fire in the US, High is an album of mostly hard-driving rock music that saw the post-millennium Mountain reconnecting with their roots. Opening track Immortal had started life as Baby I’m Down on West’s solo debut decades earlier before being reworked by Maryland stoner rock heroes Clutch for their 2001 album Pure Rock Fury, only to be reclaimed one more time by West.
What this album lacks in production gloss is compensated for by raw, jittery energy, although that’s offset by an orchestral-based reworking of Nantucket Sleighride that brings the album to a somewhat edgy close.