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Why Montrose Fired Sammy Hagar: Exclusive ‘Rock the Nation’ Book Excerpt

Montrose
Warner Bros. / Martin Popoff

In this exclusive excerpt from Rock the Nation: Montrose, Gamma and Ronnie Redefined, a new book about Ronnie Montrose, author Martin Popoff explains how the relationship between the late guitarist and original Montrose singer Sammy Hagar fell to pieces barely two years after the release of the group’s acclaimed 1973 debut album

Hagar kicks off this excerpt by discussing the impact the group had on future generations of bands, then explains how their disagreement over the future viability of hard-rock music led to their split after just one more record together.

“A lot of bands today — Van Halen and the bands the Cult and Boston — Tom Scholz the first time I met him says, ‘The first Montrose album, it’s the bible.’ Everybody say it’s the bible. So I’m going, it’s great to be part of that, but at the time we didn’t know what we were doing. And Ronnie was so insecure that he told us on the making of the second record we’re too late in this whole game, we have to change, otherwise we’re not going to make it. Metal is over. That’s what he was saying. Hard rock, loud music is done. We barely made it under the wire, but I don’t want to go on. So he fired me and he fired … and he started trying to change because he thought metal was over. And then a few years later, here comes Van Halen and Poison and Mötley Crüe and everybody else. Same thing we were doing, and it makes it big, but we never made it. Montrose never made it. Like I say, we headlined San Francisco and we headlined Paris. We were huge in Paris for some reason, and we did okay in London and okay in Germany, but that’s it. Everywhere else, we were an opening act. We never headlined ever.”

So Montrose was five years ahead of its time. “Sure, by, say, 1979, that was like the peak of bands like Van Halen coming on the scene. Mötley Crüe was coming onto the scene soon. I know in ‘79 I was rocking as hard as I ever was. I think there was becoming a big division between pop and metal, and a lot of the bands were writing hit songs and crossing over, possibly. And real metal was probably kind of dying. The record companies were saying, Hey, you can sell a lot more records if you get on this station in this format. And Rolling Stone was big and strong and powerful and they certainly weren’t a metal magazine by any means. They were just a media, political, whatever the hippest thing in rock is, that’s what they were into. So I think everyone started seeing how you could really make it instead of just coming out of the garage. Metal was garage, you know? And it’s almost like the speed metal thing that happened later with Metallica and all those guys, that was pretty much … they were just doing what we did in Montrose. That was going in a garage, cranking out and playing this loud music. So maybe it hadn’t seen its second really big resurgence yet, but I think a lot of bands were crossing over. I don’t know what would have happened to Montrose, but Aerosmith certainly crossed over. They got themselves a big pop hit. Kiss crossed over, they got themselves a big pop hit. Van Halen was crossing over. They were getting semi-pop hits. But Ronnie was wrong, because this is 2010 and metal is still out there rocking, and it never, ever really went completely away. You take a band like Iron Maiden who was big, kind of went down a little bit, and Iron Maiden’s probably bigger now than they ever were anywhere in the world, and they’re a pure metal band. Don’t call those guys pop — they never crossed over.

“But like I said, Ronnie thought we were doomed,” continues Sammy. “He thought we were way too late and we were never going to make it. He obviously felt snubbed, and he kind of wanted to be respected as a musician more than me. I just wanted to be a star. But I gotta say, if you checked into a hotel dressed the way we were dressed, whoa; walking down the street … You certainly didn’t stop driving a car across city to city. In those days we used to drive a lot in the station wagon. You didn’t stop at a truck stop and walk in dressed looking the way we did — you’d get your ass kicked. So yeah, you know, you felt like an outcast for sure as a singer-songwriter.

“But I think there was a community. Like when we’d play with Aerosmith and J. Geils and Humble Pie or those guys, we all had the same vibe. We could hang out together, and backstage it didn’t seem as competitive. I think we had a little family about the heavy metal guys. I remember when Montrose played in London the first time, everyone came out. All the English musicians came to see us, because I think they probably thought these guys are American, it’s spreading. I think Led Zeppelin and those guys were looking like, Wow, it’s starting to work. I never understood Ronnie saying it’s too late, we’re over. I’m going, ‘You’re crazy! I can see it starting to build.’ And when I left Montrose, for instance, as a solo artist, I didn’t want to continue on because Ronnie had my head a little screwed-up. So I kind of went a little more singer-songwriter instead of putting together another heavy metal band. Because I actually … he had me believing it.

“So I felt a little more isolated and removed from the whole scene when I became a solo artist. That’s kind of when I took a hard left. Montrose seems like, like I said, everyone would come out and see us, but it was all that same ilk of people. It was the metalheads and metal bands. I remember Rod Stewart coming to see us in London, and he was a hero of mine to the bone. And the Stones — Keith and Mick came to a gig in Amsterdam we were doing with Little Feat to see us get booed off the stage. Not cool.”

As Sammy alluded to, by 1979, he was long gone out of Montrose and himself ensconced as a prolific second-tier solo act, and, as he says, rocking fairly hard, or at least as hard as Montrose would through the last three-quarters of their catalog. Sammy would leave the band in February of ‘75, after the boiling-over pressures between himself and Ronnie over the course of the band’s European tour for Paper Money, with new vocalist Bob James arriving three months later.

Laughs Ronnie, of Sammy’s exit from the ranks of Montrose, “We have a longstanding joke now, because I did fire him from the Montrose band for some of the same reasons that I left the Edgar Winter Group. He was onto his own thing and had many more things that he wanted to do as a band leader than he could do in our format. Same thing that I did with Edgar. One of the running jokes is that it took Van Halen a lot longer than it took me to fire him! Another one I love is one that Sam told when I was playing on his last album, Marching to Mars, Sammy said, ‘People keep asking me, like, what happened to Ronnie? And I tell them, S—, Ronnie fired me, fired everybody else … I think he fired himself!’ But there was something in Sammy that was a classic breed of frontman and vocalist. He had the voice, and we all loved Free and we loved Paul Rodgers, and Sammy’s the first to admit that was one of his major huge influences. So he had that, and he had that thing that all he wanted to be in his life was a rock star. That was it. I mean, that was his calling in life, and he wanted to sing and dance and be somebody. And he did a good job of it. Still doing it.”

For the record, Sammy says that the final straw with Ronnie came after Hagar had been heralded essentially as the second coming of Robert Plant in some Belgian press review amid U.K. and continental touring dates as part of the Warner Brothers Music Tour, in a package with Little Feat, Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Graham Central Station and Bonaroo. Rather than appreciate that he had his own power Plant inside the band, when the band got to Paris preparing to perform two tour-ending shows at the Olympia Theatre, Ronnie turned to Sammy in the car — Sammy, Alan and Denny were all in the back seat — and said he was breaking up the band and asked him what he planned to do with his life now. After the shows, with Sammy sick as a dog from food poisoning, Hagar didn’t even fly home on the same plane as Ronnie, already plotting to take Denny and Fitz to start a new band. Denny and Sammy actually jammed on a few of Sammy’s new songs, but then Ronnie lured the guys back, given a resigning of the band to Warner Bros., something Hagar suspects was premeditated and already in the works without his knowing.

To learn more about Rock the Nation: Montrose, Gamma and Ronnie Redefined and Martin Popoff’s other books, visit his official website.

 10 Ugly Rock Breakups

Next: Sammy Hagar's Top 10 '70s Songs

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