‘Snakebitten

Rainbow, Gillan, and Whitesnake: three bands that filled the void between Deep Purple’s 1976 break-up and the Mk II reunion in 1984. All achieved great success in the UK and Europe, with charting albums & singles, Gold records, TV appearances, etc. However, while Gillan (the band) never made any serious waves on this side of the pond, Rainbow and Whitesnake did. Blackmore and Co. did it the old fashioned way: touring America incessantly in the late 70’s, and later retooling their sound for FM radio. The story of Whitesnake’s road to fame and fortune in the US is a tragic one. If handled differently, Whitesnake could have been another Bad Company, maybe even an Aerosmith. But sadly, this was not to be. In an effort to break into the lucrative American market, Whitesnake dove headlong into the empty glitz and glam of the of the MTv era. When the dust settled, we’d lost another fine band in the great Hair Metal Wars of the 1980’s.

Whitesnake had evolved out of the post-Purple career of David Coverdale, who, after 2 solo albums, decided to make a go of it with a proper band. ‘David Coverdale’s Whitesnake’ debuted with the ‘Snakebite’ E.P. in 1978, and by their third album, had absorbed former Purps Ian Paice and Jon Lord into their ranks. Alas, almost five years/albums into their career, despite major success in Britain, a breakthrough in the States continued to elude a band that was three fifths Deep Purple Mk III. Guitarist Mickey Moody, frustrated that a band with several Gold records could be 20,000 pounds in debt, quit the band near the end of sessions for Whitesnake’s fifth lp ‘Saints an’ Sinners’. The Coverdale/Marsden/Moody triumvirate was no more.

whitesn_pr107

David Coverdale knew some major changes needed to be made if the band were to break outside of the UK. The singer abruptly called a halt to the recording sessions and put the band ‘on hold’ in an effort to cut ties with manager John Coletta. During this enforced hiatus, guitarist Bernie Marsden left the band, as did the rhythm section of Niel Murray and Ian Paice. David Coverdale and Jon Lord were the last ‘Snakes standing…

So ‘Saints an’ Sinners’ sat unfinished for most of 1982. By the end of the year, Coverdale was managing Whitesnake himself, and had rebuilt the band from scratch. The new ‘Snake was comprised of bassist Colin Hodgkinson, ex-Trapeze guitarist Mel Galley, and Cozy Powell. Not exactly blooz-rawk legends… Recognizing this, Coverdale invited Micky Moody and his down-and-dirty slide guitar back to the band. Moody accepted.

As it turned out, all the unfinished ‘Saints…’ album needed was backing vocals, so Moody and Galley contributed vox and the sessions were wrapped. (Some believe the album was actually finished, with Coverdale holding the completed record hostage during his efforts to separate the band from Coletta.) ‘Saints an’ Sinners’, recorded by a version of Whitesnake that no longer existed, hit #9 in the UK. The record, um, missed thd charts completely; this latest failure of Whitesnake to crack the American market infuriated the band’s new manager…

Just before starting work on album #6, Coverdale scored a major record label upgrade, moving the band in the US from Atlantic to Geffen. The band began recording a new album in earnest. If anyone could guide Whitesnake to their US breakthrough, it was proven starmaker David Geffen. Geffen often acted as career advisor to the artists on his label, with outstanding results. What would this new high-powered ally advise Whtesnake’s new management?

Mickey Moody, back in the band he helped found, felt like a stranger in a strange land. Throughout the recording, Moody sensed his time was short. While on tour with Thin Lizzy in 1983, Coverdale struck up a ‘friendship’ with guitarist John Sykes, while Moody’s own friendship with the vocalist had all but evaporated. After a backstage incident between Moody, Coverdale and Sykes, Mickey decided to once again quit the band. He called a meeting to make his announcement, which everyone in the band attended… except singer/manager David Coverdale. John Sykes, available after the demise of Thin Lizzy, was immediately announced as his replacement. Imagine that.

aaaaaaaaa

After ‘Slide it In’ was completed, David Geffen continued to work his magic behind the scenes. Geffen demanded the record be remixed for the US market. He also demanded that new guitarist John Sykes overdub guitars, and that Hodgkinson’s bass be re-recorded by ex-member Niel Murray. The resultant album is not really much different, with all of Moody and Galley’s work intact; Sykes’ more 80’s guitar tone is apparent but not obtrusive (though Murray’s new bass tracks were a vast improvement over Hodgkinson’s). The real difference would be in how the album looked on TV.

Both promotional videos for the ‘Slide’ album featured only Coverdale, Sykes, Murray and Powell (oh– and bimbos; lots of bimbos). Jon Lord had left to take part in Deep Purple’s Mk II reunion; Mel Galley had injured his arm and would never fully recover, forcing him to leave the band. New boy Sykes was now the band’s sole guitarist. Once again, the band people would experience would be vastly different than the one that wrote and recorded the music they were hearing. And so we see John Sykes pretending to play Micky Moody’s classic slide guitar parts, as well as Mel Galley’s solo on ‘Slow and Easy’ (Moody’s slide solo was edited out of the video). Sykes looks positively dreamy aping Galley’s solo in ‘Love Ain’t no Stranger’. And from the looks of the video, no one was playing the keybords.

Whitesnake’s new front line looked great in the videos, if you liked hair… and apparently America did. ‘Slide’ reached the American Top 40, a feat that no Whitesnake album before it had achieved. How? What was the difference between ‘Slide it In’ and all previous Whitesnake albums? Presentation. David Geffen knew what was coming. He knew that what music looked like would be just as important as what it sounded like to rock fans in the age of MTv. And let’s face it, Micky Moody, with his ever-present stovepipe hat and questionable facial hair, was hardly a match for the flowing locks and heroic posing of John Sykes. Geffen helped revamp Whitesnake for the MTv generation, and it worked. ‘Side it In’ went Gold in America, and Whitesnake had planted one foot firmly on the road to Hair Metal. David Geffen’s impact and influence on Whitesnake was undeniable, and after the success of ‘Slide’ he urged the band to ‘start taking America seriously’. Uh-oh.

It took Coverdale and Co. took more than three years to complete a follow up to ‘Slide’, mostly becasuse, as a band, Whitesnake was a mess. Cozy Powell quit after the last date on the ‘Slide’ tour, and was replaced by Aisnley Dunbar.
The Coverdale/Sykes writing partnership yielded two hits in ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Is This Love’… but not much else. Unimpressed with bulk of the writing, producers Mike Stone and Lieth Olsen suggested re-recording earlier Whitesnake UK hit singles ‘Here I Go Again’, and ‘Crying in the Rain’. Then Coverdale developed a serious sinus infection, forcing the band into another extended hiatus. Sykes actually urged the band to replace Coverdale (!!!), which led to his firing by the band’s manage(Coverdale!)ment. Adrian Vandenberg was hired to replace Sykes. This was no longer a band, it was a goddamn soap opera.

W4

By the time the ‘Whitesnake’ album was released, Coverdale had rebuilt Whitesnake yet again, with Tommy Aldridge, Vivian Campbell, Rudy Sarzo (oh, for Christ’s sake!) and the aforementioned Vandenberg. What is this– Rainbow??. Nobody in this line up (except Covs) wrote or recorded any of the music they were fronting. And how ironic seeing Adrian Vandenberg ‘play’ John Sykes’ guitar parts in the videos for ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Is This Love’… Somewhere, Micky Moody was smiling.

The ‘Whitesnake’ album defied all logic and was a smash hit everywhere. Riding high on the the Hair Metal wave, it charted higher in the US than in the UK, eventually selling 8 million copies, and pulled it’s predecessor from Gold to Double Platinum status. And the most important factor in this album’s success was not even a musician: Tawny Kitaen, Queen of the Video Bimbos. You know it’s true.

The transformation was complete: from a solid band of bluesy hard rockers to glam metal fops in just three albums. Whitesnake had reached its goal of conquering America. But mega success like this does not come without a price. Whitesnake’s road to success in America was littered with bitter ex-members, covert machinations and ridiculous videos. A once-great band had sold out and become a revolving door of hired hands with big names, big hair, but no soul. There would be one more Whitesnake record (featuring Steve Vai on guitar… the polar opposite of Micky Moody; look it up) before Coverdale folded the band ‘for good’. Some consider this to be the wisest management decision David Coverdale ever made.

Advertisements

But Don’t Give Yourself Away

Funny how some songs that had minimal impact upon release can show amazing staying power over the ensuing decades.

Cheap-trick-surrender1

Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’, the first single from their 1978 album ‘Heaven Tonight’, only made it to 62 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but 36 years later it’s a classic rock staple, and is now considered one of Cheap Trick’s ‘Greatest Hits’. The song made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (whatever that means) and has been used in several movies and TV shows. And this perfectly constructed power pop gem deserves the accolades; it’s fun, it’s catchy, it rocks, and it delivers its message, like most of Cheap Trick’s work, with considerable wit. Sole composer Rick Nielsen wrote ‘Surrender’ about the divide between kids and their parents, but he sure took a strange way to get there. I mean… have you ever really listened to the lyrics to this song?

Before we take this tune apart, let’s look at its background. ‘Surrender’ was written in 1976, long before the Tricksters were signed. Rick Nielsen (who producer Jack Douglas once called ‘the most gifted songwriter I’ve ever worked with’) was a songwriting machine, and had amassed about 50 songs before the band was signed to Epic. ‘Surrender’ was one of them, and was actually recorded for their debut album but didn’t make the final cut. In those pre-label days, Cheap Trick’s dark side was far more prominent, with Nielsen cranking out songs about suicide (‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘Oh, Candy’), serial killers (‘The Ballad of TV Violence’), child molesters (‘Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School’), and other general nastiness (‘She’s Tight’, ‘He’s a Whore’, ‘Heaven Tonight’, ‘Gonna Raise Hell’, etc). The genius of Nielsen and early Cheap Trick is the way this off-the-wall subject matter was built into impossibly hooky songs… ‘Surrender’ being a prime example.

Cheap Trick-surrender

1st verse:

Mother told me, yes she told me

I’d meet girls like you

She also told me ‘Stay away

You never know what you’ll catch’

Right away, in the first verse, there’s an allusion to STDs. Not exactly standard boy-meets-girl stuff. After the bouncy Who-like intro, this verse sets the tone for the rest of the song; Zander’s sly half-innocent/half-jaded teen delivering the not-so-nice lyric over a bubblegummy bed of rock n’ roll crunch.

‘Just the other day I heard of a soldier’s falling off

Some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round’ 

Here, Mommy shares a story about the horrific effects of Venereal Disease. According to mom, VD can cause your dick to fall off. Also note the first of many military allusions, which cleverly support the song’s chorus and title.

2nd verse:

Father says ‘Your mother’s right

She’s really up on things

Before we married mommy served

in tha WACs in the Philippines’

More military references… and the implication that Mommy knows a thing or two about Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Now I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war

But mommy isn’t one of those, I’ve known her all these years

This part of verse 2 originally read ‘Now I had heard the WACs were either old maids, dykes, or whores’; the song was even demo’d with this line for ‘Heaven Tonight’. Someone decided that this was maybe a bit too much for rock radio in 1978. Someone was right. This wasn’t the first time the suits asked CT to alter a song, and wouldn’t be the last; ‘The Ballad of TV Violence’ from the 1976 debut was originally titled ‘The Ballad of Richard Speck’, but the title was changed at the behest of Epic Records, and years later, another song, called ‘Don’t Hit Me With Love’ was vetoed by the label and left off of the ‘Next Position Please’ album altogether (although that album’s title track, which includes the word ‘tits’, made it through intact… go figure) .

Cheap+Trick+-+Surrender+-+7_+RECORD-589391

We’re not going to parse the first half of the third verse; although the key change is brilliant, I have no idea what the lyrics mean. There are actually a lot of nonsense lyrics in the Cheap Trick catalog; they’re there by design and are a part of the band’s off-kilter charm— and when you have a lead singer that would sound great singing the goddamn phonebook, you can fill space with anything and get away with it.

3rd verse, 2nd half:

When I woke up mom and dad

Were rollin’ on the couch

Rollin’ numbers, rock and rollin’

Got my KISS records out

So the kid busts his parents having sex on the couch, smoking pot, and listening to his KISS albums. This is the verse that illustrates the ultimate point of the song: maybe mom and dad are cooler than you think. It also nicely leads us back into the chorus and the song’s central premise:

Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright

They just seem a little weird

The last 2 lines of the chorus allude to the military references made earlier in the song, and wrap up the chorus nicely by suggesting that maybe the ‘battle’ between generations isn’t really necessary; maybe it’s okay to admit your parents are kinda cool, but that doesn’t mean you have to admit it to them

Surrender, Surrender

But don’t give yourself away

Is this not 4 minutes and 12 seconds of pure genius?

I’m sure the CT guys all got a kick out seeing the teeny-bopper side of their fan base singing along with lines about parents doing drugs and somebody’s dick falling off. I doubt Gene $immons had a problem with the KISS reference (‘free advertising!’), either. They even reference themselves by name individually at the end of the song. Dammit this song is just too much fun.

cheap-trick-heaven-tonight-1977-booklet-front-cover-93689

Classic Cheap Trick was all about duality. Handsome guys on the front cover; goofy guys on the back. Hook-laden, catchy-as-hell tunes, subversive/sarcastic lyrics and vocal delivery; the Bay City Rollers meet Alice Cooper. ‘Trick walked a fine line between parody and tribute, simultaneously working on both sides of the fence; poking fun at power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music while at the same time creating excellent power pop, bubblegum, and arena rock music. Their catalog is crammed with exceedingly well-written, artfully constructed and masterfully executed rock songs, all perpetrated by a band that demanded that you don’t take it all too seriously. And as producer Steve Albini said, ‘They rock like a truck full of bricks’.

A song like ‘Surrender’ is sort of like a trap; you’re initially taken in my the hooks and melodies, the catchy chorus, the friendly vibe. Then there’s the moment when you realize what the singer just sang… Anyway, does the name of this band make more sense now?

(Lyrics used without permission :p)