More than a little bit rock ’n’ roll: Donny Osmond talks metal masterpiece ‘Crazy Horses’

Lyndsey Parker
Crazy Horses, by the Osmonds (Photo: MGM Records)

Forty-five years ago, metal hell froze over, and the seemingly unfathomable happened. On Oct. 14, 1972, one of the most unlikely hard rock albums was released to an unsuspecting, Tiger Beat-reading public. That album was Crazy Horses, by the Osmonds.

Yes, those Osmonds.

While the sweet-faced, scrubbed-clean brothers had been known previously as Utah’s Mormon answer to the Jackson 5, with their own kiddie cartoon show and bubblegum pop singles like “One Bad Apple” and “Puppy Love,” in January 1972 they released Phase III, which showcased a grittier new direction and more self-penned material. Phase III went gold and yielded two top 10 singles, but it was nine months later, with the psychedelic, bananas boogie-rock of Crazy Horses, that the boys truly entered a new musical phase — and, at least temporarily, shed their teen idol image.

“My brothers and I had been what’s now called a boy band: All our songs were chosen for us by the record company,” Merrill Osmond told the Guardian in early 2017. “But now, having been successful, we wanted to freak out and make our own music. We were rehearsing in a basement one day when Wayne started playing this heavy rock riff. I came up with a melody and Alan got the chords. Within an hour, we had the song [“Crazy Horses”]. … This track was heavier than anything we’d ever done. When the label heard it, they said: ‘Guys, what on earth are you doing?’ But when the record started flying up the [British] charts, we got their respect, even though it was initially banned in France because they thought ‘smoking up the sky’ was about drugs.”

Co-produced by Michael Lloyd of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and evoking Led Zeppelin, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, Tower of Power, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Crazy Horses earned the Osmonds respect from other musicians as well — even from their ultimate rock idols, Zep. “When we were on tour in Europe, Led Zeppelin invited us onstage [at Earls Court, to sing “Stairway to Heaven”],” Merrill revealed to Death and Taxes magazine in 2014. “Later we hung out backstage and talked about how we really dug their entire music concept.” Added Jimmy Osmond: “It is really cool for us to know that people from top groups like Led Zeppelin have raised their hands and said, ‘Isn’t that a great riff?’ or ‘They really did have amazing musical talent.’”

Zeppelin drummer John Bonham even brought his son Jason to an Osmonds concert and took him backstage afterward to meet the band. The night made an impression on the younger Bonham, who told Death and Taxes: “They started with ‘Crazy Horses.’ They were on these wires and they came out across the audience back then, so Bon Jovi wasn’t the first guy to do it.”

“Because we were this family, we were Christians, we just didn’t fit in the mould. … the rock press would never give us a break,” Jimmy griped to Bang Showbiz in 2015. However, many years later, in 1991, noted metal critic Chuck Eddy controversially but unapologetically ranked Crazy Horses at No. 66 (or “No. 66.6”) in his anthology Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, smack in between Billy Squier and the Pink Fairies. Among other colorful and unironic pro-Osmond rants, Eddy wrote: “Marie’s and Little Jim’s big bros open with a cannibalistic ‘Immigrant Song’ rip called ‘Hold Her Tight’ and keep up to date with rebellious teen trends by dressing up like drug-crazed Electric Company rejects.”

But it was the thundering, feverishly paced, dystopian, and completely bonkers title track that turned Crazy Horses into a cult classic. (“The most apocalyptic Book of Revelation imagery this side of Dylan/Osbourne, and I swear to Joseph Smith its demented kicks and whinnies were stolen outright by Aerosmith in ‘Back in the Saddle,’” Eddy gushed.) “Crazy Horses” has been sampled by Pop Will Eat Itself and covered by KMFDM, Electric Six, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Mission U.K., and even Metallica … and it’s one of Ozzy Osbourne’s favorite rock songs of all time.

While Crazy Horses focused less on the Osmonds’ main heartthrob and vocalist, Donny, due to his midpuberty voice change, and most of the tracks were written by eldest brothers Alan, Merrill, and Wayne Osmond, Donny is proud of the record — he only wishes it had opened more doors for its follow-up, 1973’s The Plan, an ambitious concept album about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (The Plan stalled at No. 58 on the Billboard album chart, compared to respective peaks of No. 10 and No. 14 for Phase III and Crazy Horses.)

Donny Osmond recently spoke to Yahoo Music about Crazy Horses’ legacy and the Osmonds’ semi-secret hard rock past. It turns out he wasn’t lying when he said he was a little bit rock ’n’ roll. 

Yahoo Music: Crazy Horses comes up as a surprising influence among many credible rock artists. How did it become this underground phenomenon?

Donny Osmond: Well, I think it’s kind of interesting how the Osmond name has been really seen on both side of the pendulum. There’s obviously the bubblegum side, but for people who really know about music, it’s clear on the other side. As a matter of fact, I find it quite ironic that Metallica used to cover “Crazy Horses.” It was a cutting-edge album.

How was it received at the time?

Over in the European markets, particularly in the U.K., it was huge. … Over in the U.K., “Crazy Horses” is still revered as one of the great rock ’n’ roll songs in pop culture. It’s been covered by so many bands and used in commercials. Over in England, I’ve got such a different image — I’m more of a musician. It’s a whole different thing over there. But here in the States, once people locked their jaws into something, whether it be the “Puppy Love” era or the cartoon or whatever, then those people figure a band doing cartoons can’t do rock ’n’ roll music. The Jackson 5, now, were a different dynamic, because they weren’t considered rock ’n’ roll — that was R&B. But for white guys doing cartoons, people thought, “They can’t be doing songs like ‘Crazy Horses’!”

British fans attend an Osmonds concert in England, November 1972. (Photo: AP/Robert Dear)

Are you aware of this Chuck Eddy book that praises the album?

No, I don’t know it.

Well, the book is called Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, and Crazy Horses is No. 66.

Are you kidding me???

Seriously! No. 66 out of 500. Of course, Chuck got a lot of flak for that, because there were many metal purists who couldn’t understand how an Osmonds record could possibly be on that list.

I think that’s so cool that he would be willing to do that.

He had a strong argument for why it should be included, saying one of the most metal or punk-rock things a group like the Osmonds could do would be to make a record like Crazy Horses.

Wow. That is cool.

Do you have any stories of other rock fans or musicians expressing their love for the album or song?

Ozzy Osbourne came up to me during the [Dancing With the Stars Season 9] finals. Kelly Osbourne was in the finals with me — she came in third, and then Mya came in second, and I won. During a commercial break he had to go to the bathroom, and I’m backstage, and I’m on pins and needles because it’s the finals. And Ozzy comes right up to me and says, “I just want you to know that ‘Crazy Horses’ is one of my favorite rock ’n’ roll songs of all time.”

Donny and Marie Osmond with Ozzy Osbourne in a 2010 Super Bowl Pepsi commercial. (Photo: Pepsi Co./Getty Images)

Whoa! Anyone else?

Simon Le Bon [of Duran Duran] once said to me, “I think it would be cool if you would come up onstage and tour with us, and we would do ‘Crazy Horses’ and just blow people away, because I love that song.”

Well, I think you should remake the Crazy Horses album, with guest appearances by all the rock musicians who say they’ve been inspired by it, like Ozzy, Duran Duran, Metallica, KMFDM…

Wouldn’t that be cool? If they’d be willing to be a part of it!

Get on that! That album really does need to be more in the public consciousness.

Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, because we’re certainly proud of it. It was really frustrating for us as a band, because of the image vs. the reality.

The Osmonds pose at Schiphol, Netherlands, in 1972: left to right, Alan, Donny, Jay, Merrill, Wayne (Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Do you regret that the Osmonds didn’t go in a rock direction from the very beginning?

Well, see, that was the direction we were all headed in, but then the teenybopper career was just so powerful with “Puppy Love” and all those other songs. And unfortunately, it was just a machine. My producer at the time, he said, “Let’s just pump out as much as we possibly can,” and didn’t look at a lot of quality. I recorded songs like “Lollipops, Lace, and Lipstick” and all that stuff. It was selling; that’s what the little teeny- and weenyboppers wanted. But I was into Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and all those kinds of bands. So it was really a juxtaposition: I was the kid who sang “Puppy Love,” so it was part of me, but I was all across the board musically growing up.

Perhaps Crazy Horses needed to be released with no name on it at first, so it could get more cred in the States.

Yeah! That should have been our White Album! As a matter of fact, we did an album called The Plan where we did that very thing. There was some hard rock radio station in L.A., and we white-labeled the album and my brother Alan took it in. The program director was like, “This is fantastic! It sounds like the Who, Led Zeppelin. What’s the name of the band?” Alan said, “Well … it’s the Osmonds.” And the guy was like, “Oh, man. I can’t play this.”

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