On this day in 1986, the world found out that New Jersey had more in its musical closet than just Bruce Springsteen. That was when Bon Jovi put out their third album – but first one most noticed at all – Slippery When Wet. Love it or hate it, there was no avoiding it back then and not only did it put Jon Bon Jovi and his band on the map, to many like allmusic, it “bridged the gap between hard rock and pop.”
Bon Jovi had been kicking around for about four years or so by that point and put out two albums with Mercury Records. They were fairly conventional heavy metal albums that attracted very little publicity outside a limited head-banger’s crowd. Their previous album, 7800 Fahrenheit , for example peaked at #37 at home and they’d scraped into the top 40 singles charts, barely, once. This didn’t suit them well. So even though they were so rooted in their New Jersey home that they picked the state’s name as the title for their fourth album, for this one they wanted a change in scenery…and looked west. And north.
Bon Jovi particularly liked the song “It’s Only Love” by Bryan Adams and Tina Turner and wanted to find a similar sort of sound for his band. And he loved the studio work of Bruce Fairburn, who like Adams was from Vancouver, Canada. So they packed up for B.C., and had Fairburn and his sidekick, Bob Rock craft the album with them. They even brought in another Vancouver rocker, Mike Reno of Loverboy (who incredibly enough were a bigger name than Bon Jovi at that point) to add backing vocals. It all turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Or at least what Mercury Records did.
Slippery When Wet was a ten song effort that effectively introduced “hair metal” to the widespread masses. There were foot-stomping sing-along rock anthems like “You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Livin’ on A Prayer”, the slower, more brooding “Wanted Dead or Alive” and party soundtrack readies like “Raise Your Hands” or “Wild In the Streets.” In retrospect, Jon figured all 11 they recorded should have been on the initial release, but “Edge of A Broken Heart” was omitted despite the fact that “it was absolutely appropriate for the Slippery album.” He corrected that, adding it in a 1998 special edition re-release.
JBJ and lead guitarist Richie Sambora wrote most of the material, but they brought in Desmond Child (a songwriter who also worked with Michael Bolton) to help sweeten up a couple of the tracks. As allmusic put it, “the band made no attempt to hide its commercial ambition.” Although they had to a wee bit with the packaging. They got the idea for the title watching a girl at a strip club in Canada soap herself up. “Out testosterone was at a very high level back then,” Sambora suggested. Fittingly, they picked a close-up picture of a busty girl in a wet yellow t-shirt for the cover. Mercury vetoed it though, figuring it would be boycotted by some retail chains because of it, and they substituted the familiar “not very impressive” (in the words of Sambora again) wet garbage bag cover. Except for Japan, where Vertigo – the Asian distributor – kept the t-shirt gal cover.
When it came out, critics by and large weren’t all that impressed. The Village Voice snippily suggested that it proved “sure, seven million teenagers can be wrong,” and suggesting that if this was rock to the new generation then “”youth rebellion is toothless.” Similarly, Rolling Stone, although initially giving it 3.5-stars, soon wrote that Bon Jovi delivered “condescending sentiment, reducing every emotional statement to a barefaced cliché.”
That didn’t seem to matter to fans, of which there were quickly more than seven million of. The singles “You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” both went to #1 in the U.S., the first time a “metal” act had back-to-back chart toppers. “Wanted Dead or Alive” peaked at a respectable #7 and eventually sold enough to go 4X platinum as a single. Together they helped, as Jason Chow of the National Post puts it “did the unthinkable…turn heavy metal into a pop genre women would be able to love.” That they did, and plenty of men too it would seem. The album would quickly hit #1 in fall of ’86 for a week, but then would return to the top for seven more weeks in 1987 and end up as the year’s biggest-seller domestically. It also topped charts in Canada and New Zealand (it hit #10 in Japan, thanks to its unique cover, or perhaps, it stalled there due to the cover). In both the U.S. and Canada it’s diamond-selling, contributing to its worldwide tally of 28 million copies sold…and blending heavy metal and pop together in a way that would soon be the defining sound of the rest of that decade.