How Humble Pie Reached a Career Crossroads With ‘Thunderbox’
Released in February 1974, Humble Pie’s Thunderbox was pivotal – but not in a good way. Instead, this seventh studio album signaled a commercial fall from grace for Steve Marriott's group.
Starting with their modest 1969 debut, As Safe as Yesterday, Humble Pie had grown from strength-to-strength, quickly earning their reputation as one of the world’s first supergroups. (Along with Small Faces alum Marriott, they featured former Herd lead guitarist Peter Frampton and ex-Spooky Tooth bassist Greg Ridley — plus teenage drummer Jerry Shirley.) Their career milestone followed with Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, the exuberant 1971 live album.
But then Frampton quit, promptly signed a solo deal with Humble Pie’s record company, A&M. Marriott efficiently replaced him with the more-than-capable Clem Clempson, but things would never be the same.
Subsequent offerings like 1972’s Smokin’ and 1973’s Eat It (a four-sided behemoth, split between studio rockers, acoustic fare, and live cover material) did manage to capitalize on their breakthrough with Top 20 chart showings, but Humble Pie's sales were still no match for those of competing stadium-filling titans of the day like Led Zeppelin or the Who.
Fairly or not, A&M Records expected more, and after indulging Humble Pie’s grand ambitions on Eat It, the last thing they were expecting from the band’s next studio venture was a rush-recorded follow-up boasting seven cover tunes (out of 12 total tracks), named after a 17th-century slang term for toilet.
Listen to Humble Pie Perform the Title Track from 'Thunderbox'
A&M nevertheless packaged Thunderbox in February 1974 with a lavish sleeve boasting a keyhole view into the water-closet of some scantily clad models, then trotted the albums out to record stores and radio stations in the hopes that its powerful title cut and many soulful remakes — including the Rolling Stones-like "Ninety-Pounds" — would prolong Humble Pie’s relative career winning streak.
Instead, they saw Thunderbox fall short of the U.S. Top 50, stalling just outside, at No. 52, and miss the U.K. charts completely. But in Humble Pie’s defense, they had dutifully worked their butts off to promote this and every prior album, undertaking some 20 tours over the previous four-year span, only to find themselves exhausted, broke and with precious little else to show for their efforts.
As a result, Marriott and company would delay their return to both the studio and the road in late-’74 in an attempt to recharge their batteries. But this sadly prompted A&M and manager Dee Anthony to backstab the band, heist whatever working demos they could from Marriott’s proposed solo LP, and release the rough and substandard contents in early-’75 as the much-maligned Street Rats LP.
By doing so, they effectively killed the golden goose and derailed Humble Pie’s once high-flying career. The whole episode also left an emotional toll that the band members and leader Steve Marriott, in particular, would never fully recover from.