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A decade of goody-goody music can wear a boy band down.
Throughout the ’60s, the Osmond brothers—Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, and Donny, who ranged from 4 to 13 when they made their TV debut in 1962—had impressed viewers with tight barbershop harmonies and snappy dance routines as clean-cut, precociously talented regulars on The Andy Williams Show. But independence beckoned, and after a handful of records released in connection with the variety show, the five Utah-born brothers struck out on their own.
“We wanted to be our own thing,” eldest brother Alan recalls. “We were getting teen magazine recognition and we wanted to be musicians. We wanted to write our own music. We about starved to death that first year.”
The adolescent group’s 1968 debut flopped, but 25-year-old record producer and executive Mike Curb, who became president of MGM Records in 1969, identified the Osmonds’ commercial appeal and decided to throw his weight behind the band. Under the guidance of legendary Muscle Shoals owner and producer Rick Hall, the Osmonds struck radio gold in 1970 with the slick R&B of the bubblegum hit “One Bad Apple,” followed by the equally groovy “Double Lovin’” in 1971.
As the Osmonds were making commercial waves, so was Donny, who released his first two solo albums in 1971 as well—the year he turned 13. The pop success of early Donny hits like “Sweet and Innocent,” “Go Away Little Girl,” and “Puppy Love” reshaped MGM Records’ attitude toward the Osmond family’s output, as the powers that be spotted Donny’s potency sans his older brothers.
Despite their squeaky-clean image, the Osmonds—Donny included—were still teenage American boys, soaking up the early ’70s and idolizing rock bands like Led Zeppelin. With youngest siblings Marie and Jimmy now eyeing showbiz careers, the current band of Osmonds began to realize there might be a shrinking window of opportunity to break out of the teenybopper box.
In early 1972, the quintet hit the studio with producer and MGM vice president Michael Lloyd, then 23, with the intent of reintroducing themselves as proper rockers. Propelled by a peerless work ethic and innate musical chops, the Osmonds delivered Crazy Horses, a totally swaggering—and surprising—turn in their catalog.
With its singular, high-pitched whinnying sound effect, drummer Jay’s snarling vocal, and a guitar riff worthy of Jimmy Page himself, the album’s hard-charging title track proved the Osmonds could rock with the best of them. Who knew? Beyond the song’s sonic departure, its topical lyrics about gas-guzzling cars and pollution suggested the group had more to offer than trite boy-meets-girl tunes. In the decades since, “Crazy Horses” has reached a cult status of cool, with covers by the likes of Redd Kross, Electric Six, and the Frames.
“The Osmonds were never a boy band,” says Lloyd. “The Osmonds were just a rock ’n’ roll group that could also dance and stuff. No disrespect to the boy bands today—it’s just that the Osmonds happened to be really good musicians, too.”
As Crazy Horses celebrates its 50th anniversary, Alan, Merrill, Jay, and Donny Osmond, along with Michael Uoyd and Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald, talked to CREEM about the creation and legacy of the heaviest-chugging record in teenybopper history.
DONNY OSMOND (keyboards): I was recording teenybopper music in the studio, and it was selling like crazy. And that image became the Osmonds’ image.
JAY OSMOND (vocals, drums): The brothers, we were also Donny’s background singers at the same time—so it really confused the rock press.
DONNY: In concert, we’d be doing “One Bad Apple” and “Down by the Lazy River” and all these cool songs, and then Alan, because of obligation, would push me forward.... It was a little embarrassing for me, because then I went into “Sweet and Innocent” and “Puppy Love” and “Go Away Little Girl.” They were great songs, I’m not putting them down, but I could hardly wait to get back to the organ and play the rock ’n’ roll that we wanted to do.
JAY: Wayne really, really resented the fact that we had to sing on Donny’s “Go Away Little Girl” and “Puppy Love.” He hated that.
DONNY: “Sweet and Innocent” and “Puppy Love” and “Go Away Little Girl,” all those songs, that’s [producer] Mike Curb’s brainchild. The rock ’n’ roll side was definitely the band’s brainchild.
ALAN OSMOND (keyboards, guitar, production): We wanted to relate to our peers. We wanted young people to follow us, especially the guys.
JAY: The rock ’n’ roll [of] Crazy Horses, this was really the brothers’ first real attempt to write our own songs, our own music.
MICHAEL LLOYD (producer, MGM Records vice president): They were writing songs all the time, Alan and Merrill and Wayne, mostly.
ALAN: We lived in the studio. We’d sleep in there at night sometimes, until we got it right.
DONNY: I was upstairs recording my teenybopper music and then I would go downstairs and they would be recording rock ’n’ roll music.
LLOYD: They were very, very big on work ethic. This wasn't, “Oh, do we have to do it again?” or, “Oh, I can’t record Saturday.” It was nothing like that.
MERRILL OSMOND (vocals, bass): Perfection was always somewhat drilled into my mind.
STEVE McDONALD (Redd Kross): These guys, for how young they were [at the time], they were playing like session cats from the early ’70s. I have the utmost respect for that era, and what it took to be in that position at that time. They were no slouches.
During the sessions, Wayne brought a guitar riff to Alan and Merrill, who began improvising vocals.
ALAN: I said, “Whoa, what is that?” And Merrill’s just making up words.
DONNY: Merrill was screaming “crazy” something, it wasn’t “horses.”
ALAN: I’m kind of the writer of the family, and I said, “What’s that, what’s he saying?”
DONNY: Alan came in and said “horses,” because he wanted to write something about the environment and the smoke and all that stuff, so that’s what the song is really all about: horsepower.
ALAN: In the lyrics we tried to say something about the smoke in the air, and it comes from crazy horses riding everywhere. Well, that’s cars riding, you know?
MERRILL: It’s all about ecology. We were very into that concept at that time.
LLOYD: The statement is not really preachy at all. It’s more observational than anything, so I don’t think that people felt offended by it or talked down to in any way. It was more just, “Hey, this is what’s happening.”
MERRILL: “Crazy Horses” was written pretty quickly. I think it took probably a day to structure it and put it in place.
Merrill typically sang lead on Osmonds songs, but the group turned to Jay for “Crazy Horses.” The band’s only hit featuring its drummer on the mic also included a singular sound effect.
MERRILL: Keeping an audience’s attention was critical in everything we did. When you heard a scream of a horse, you're obviously gonna get someone’s attention.
LLOYD: That sound on “Crazy Horses” is a YC-30 Yamaha. The YC-30 had a strip ribbon, and you could stick your finger on it. You could slide “Wheeee! Wheeee!”—and wiggle it at the top.
DONNY: It was the YC-30 through the wah-wah into this stack of Marshalls. Even in the control booth it was loud, so you can imagine how loud it was in the studio itself. And Alan, I remember him playing it, and then he doubled it. It was so cool because it wasn’t an exact double, and that was what made it so unique, was to have these two whinny sounds going.
LLOYD: It didn't have enough vibe to it, just the YC-30, so then Merrill went out and did that with his voice. And it was just an incredible little addition.
MERRILL: That combination of the scream with the synthesized horse sound is what you’re actually getting on that horse sound.
DONNY: Years and years later, I did a cover version of that and sampled it, because there’s no way to re-create that original sound.
LLOYD: “Crazy Horses” is, you know—even for the time it was a little intense.
DONNY: It was magic, and all the magic came together in one session.
Crazy Horses’ title track and its other single, “Hold Her Tight,” both charted at No. 14 on the Hot 100. Just two months after its release, the album was certified gold.
JAY: I was so pleased with [Crazy Horses] because I knew we finally hit where the brothers were, musically.
ALAN: What’s really neat is that I think it finally gave us some recognition among the rockers as being legit writers and musicians.
JAY: People were blown away, and they couldn’t believe that this was the brothers.
DONNY: It was kind of refreshing to see the guys actually love the Osmonds. For a period of time, we actually saw a bunch of guys coming to our concerts, and even wanting to be in the front row. When I was singing “Puppy Love” and stuff like that, they would just look real bored. But when we’d go into “Hold Her Tight” and “Crazy Horses” and “Down by the Lazy River,” they would come alive. It was so funny, from my perspective, to see that dynamic happening in the audience, where the guys would say, “Okay, this is my music,” and then when I’d go into “Puppy Love,” the girls would say, “This is my music.”
ALAN: We just wanted to relate with those gals that were looking at us. We wanted their boyfriends to like us, too.
McDONALD: As you listen to their records, you can tell that they were listening to heavy, hard-rock music and maybe they had been crammed into a teenybop box by the marketing machine.
Ozzy Osbourne came up to me in 2009 when I was on Dancing With The Stars and told me to my face that ‘Crazy Horses’ is one of his favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.
And, like true rock stars, the Osmonds say they even stirred a little international controversy with “Crazy Horses.”
JAY: Later on, we found out the song was banned in South Africa because “crazy horses” at that time was [slang for] a drug.
DONNY: We were banned as a “pro-heroin act” in some parts of Africa, which I found very, very interesting.
ALAN: We laughed about that.
After Crazy Horses, the Osmonds returned in 1973 with The Plan, a concept album about the brothers’ Mormon faith that was met with skepticism by many in the music industry.
JAY: It was Crazy Horses that kind of pushed us into the rock opera The Plan, because we wanted to make a statement on certain things.
DONNY: I remember pushback on The Plan, which was probably one of our best albums, because they said, “This is not what is selling.” And Alan said, “But this is what we are, this is what we want to do.” And so Mike Curb basically said, “Okay, you go ahead and make the album you want to make.”
JAY: The Plan album was a group effort. That’s an album about our beliefs and about what we think about life and why we’re here and where we’re going. What’s the purpose of life, you know?
DONNY: Alan went to, I think it was KLOS in Los Angeles, it was the number-one rock ’n’ roll station there. He went in there with The Plan and white-labeled it and said, “I’m just Alan from a new band,” played the music director and the program director the album. They said, “This is amazing progressive rock ’n' roll music reminiscent of the Who and Zeppelin and all that stuff. What’s the name of your band?” And Alan said, “It’s the Osmonds. ” And they looked at him and said, “I'm so sorry, we can’t play it.”
McDONALD: It’s really a shame that they weren’t taken more seriously, because it’s not an issue of the musicianship or the artistry. It’s clearly a marketing issue.
The ambitious one-two punch of Crazy Horses and The Plan, while not completely embraced by the record industry, did increase the group’s stock among the rock artists they revered.
ALAN: Paul McCartney said, “I like you guys.” He came to see us in France.
MERRILL: When the press were taking shots at us over in England, he came out in the press and blasted them for blasting us. When we did get with Paul McCartney, and we discussed not only what we were doing, but the album The Plan, he’s the one who said, “Guys, my gosh, they’re not paying attention to you.”
And he kept saying, “Keep going, man.” He really encouraged us more than anybody I know in the industry to keep going.... He understood the depths of where we were coming from—and so did Zeppelin.
In 1975, the Osmonds were touring overseas, with siblings Marie and Jimmy along for the ride, and had gigs booked at London’s Earl’s Court on May 28 and 29, just three days after Led Zeppelin wrapped their legendary five-show run at the same venue.
MERRILL: We asked if we could use their sound system, because we were known at that time as the loudest band in the industry, mainly because the dB level was so intense, so high because of the screams, that we had to get over the screams. And so Zeppelin was the only system that we knew of that could accomplish that. So we rented their system, and then they said they wanted to meet us. So we went back and met them and they were the neatest guys.
ALAN: When we walked into the little door there that went backstage, guess what we saw: Zeppelin’s playing Frisbee with their kids. And I said, “Yeah! They’re like us! They like family!”
MERRILL: It was just one of those incredibly amazing moments. They appreciated what we were doing, and we obviously appreciated what they were doing.
DONNY: The juxtaposition of those two bands together, the Osmonds and Zeppelin, was like oil and water, but backstage, it was mutual respect for each other’s careers.