‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.

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Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.

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I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”