Part one of a Helix three-fer!
Long before they gave you an ‘R’, Helix earned a reputation as the hardest working band in Canada, year after year in the cold dirty clubs of the Great White North. Formed in 1974, Helix had a number of lineup changes before they even recorded their debut. If you want to get technical about it, even on their first album, Helix only had two remaining original members in singer Brian Vollmer and bassist Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg. Helix really solidified when they eventually acquired guitarist Paul Hackman, and twin brothers Brent (guitar) and Brian Doerner (drums).
Manager Bill Seip, who eventually guided Helix to a major label deal with Capitol Records in the early 80’s, was an early believer. Under his leadership, they managed to scrape together enough cash to record an independent album — something very few bands did back then. They released it on their own “H&S Records”, for Helix & Seip. What is remarkable about the album they created, Breaking Loose, is how great it still is today. I know people, very respected in the local rock community, who will tell you this is Helix’s best album.
Breaking Loose isn’t metal, but what it lacks in firepower is made up for in class, ambition and natural talent. Brian Doerner is one of the most respected drummers around, having acquired an extensive discography over the decades. As for Brent Doener and Paul Hackman, together they forged a guitar partnership that would take them up to the big leagues. They are not Downing & Tipton, nor are they Smith & Murray. Doerner & Hackman (R.I.P.) were in a hard rocking bar band, and Helix were damn good for their demographic. What they brought to the table was ability, but not flash. Both were capable of writing songs on their own, as the writing credits on Breaking Loose attest to.
Having toured extensively, Helix worked up a number of originals. The entire album is written by the trio of Doerner, Hackman and Vollmer, in various permutations. Even then, Brian Vollmer had a remarkable voice: power with just a tiny bit of grit, but also the ability to sing clean. The production on the album is flat by today’s standards, but perspective and context are everything. For a self-financed album in 1979, it sounds incredible! Though it lacks the oomph of Helix today, it’s perfectly listenable.
Starting with the mid-tempo “I Could Never Leave”, Helix right away hit you right off the bat with one of their catchiest tunes. You’ll notice the nice backing vocals, Brent being particularly audible. “Don’t Hide Your Love” has a similar vibe, that being hard rock with an emphasis on catchy melodies. Maybe Helix were aiming for the radio, but the songs aren’t wimpy by any stretch.
“Down in the City” is a Vollmer ballad, and a pretty good one too. The lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the music had ambition. It starts as a pretty, folky acoustic song and eventually builds with more guitars into something different. Plenty of guitars to go around. Then like night and day it’s onto “Crazy Women”, written and vocalized by Brent, otherwise known as “The Doctor”. Doerner has a quirkier writing style, which is a good thing, because it helped Helix stand out a little more from the pack. “Crazy Women” has plenty of guitars of course, but also has a neat drunken stumble to it.
Brent closed side one, and opened side two with a legendary song that helped them get a following on the west coast: “Billy Oxygen”. It’s still a favourite to this day, a short fast rocker about a guy named Billy Oxygen, captain of a starship called an ES-335, looking to meet some aliens to party with. Out of this world? Wait until you hear the band playing the shit out of it! Brian’s drumming reminds me of a good jazz drummer — fast, accurate, and hard! Keith Zurbrigg throws down a little bass, playing off with Brent and Paul in a three-way solo for the ages.
If you don’t like “Billy Oxygen”, then I’m not sure if we can be friends. The impact this song had on me cannot really be measured, as I played it on repeat ad-nauseum. As I recounted in Record Store Tales Part 2 (!), this tune even inspired me to do some writing of my own:
When I was in University I tried my hand at bad, bad science fiction short stories. Suffice to say, none of it survives today with good reason. However, Helix had a little moment in my fiction: My spaceship was called an ES-335, named after Billy Oxygen’s ship in the song. And only a little while ago did I learn that ES-335 wasn’t the name of a spaceship at all. An ES-335 was a Gibson guitar.
“Here I Go Again” is not the Whitesnake song, but another one of those melodic rock songs that seemed a bit contrived to get some radio play. That’s just speculation on my part, but I’m glad it was “Billy Oxygen” that did get the airplay. That’s not to say anything negative about the fine “Here I Go Again”. There isn’t a weak song on this album, but two other highlights are definitely “You’re A Woman Now”, featuring female backing vocals and a structure that builds into something dramatic, as if it’s Helix’s own “Stairway To Heaven”. “Wish I Could Be There” brings back the outer space theme, and has acoustic and heavy sections, sort of Helix’s foray into prog rock.
I should note that both “Wish I Could Be There” and “Billy Oxygen” made the Sausagefest countdown a few years ago, a lofty achievement indeed. “Billy” even cracked the top five. Musical scholar Scotty Geffros holds both songs in high esteem, and voted for them accordingly, as did I. Our host, Iron Tom Sharpe also voted for “Billy”.
This lineup only lasted for one album, both Brian Doerner and Keith Zurbrigg departed shortly after this, leaving Vollmer the sole original member. Their legacy of the lineup is this debut album, something any band would be proud of. Unfortunately, CDs are hard to find. Capitol did a bare-bones but fine CD reissue in 1992, with both Breaking Loose and the second album White Lace & Black Leather, on one disc. That release was called The Early Years, but it went out of print many years ago. Brian Vollmer did a CD reissue of each individually, but both are now sold out.
Now, fair warning: I have to disclose that I am biased when it comes to this band. I’ve met them a number of times, and I have the phone numbers of two guys who played on this album. For another perspective, I asked Scotty Geffros, who has a Masters degree in Rockology, about his relationship with Breaking Loose:
After being handed this album, as a youngster of maybe 9 or 10, I remember examining the cover first…and seeing the photos of the band on the back, and wondering why the singer had a Blackhawks jersey on? I was told by my father to listen to “Billy Oxygen” and quickly went to the turntable to give it a spin. Low and behold, instant love. From catchy tunes like “Here I Go Again”, to more epic works like “Wish I Could Be There”, this album grabbed me and holds up today as a really good, albeit under-appreciated record.
[Note: I was wondering the same thing. Brian, why are you wearing a Blackhawks jersey?]
I’d go a step further than Scott and call it really great. Being completely honest though, the only complaint I have about this album would be that some of the lyrics were a little weak. Young band…first album…I’ll forgive them. If you can too, then I suggest you hear Breaking Loose at your earliest convenience.