April 11 – The Cult Find The Religion Of Rock?

Was the priest in the temple Jimmy Page or Ozzy? The Cult more or less completed their decade-long transition from neo-psychedelic post-punk new wavers to full-out metalheads on this day in 1989. That was when they put out their fourth album, Sonic Temple, which carried on where the previous one, Electric, left off, turning their sound away from fellow Beggar’s Banquet label-mates Bauhaus/ Love & Rockets and towards the likes of Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

The Sabbath comparison has a little more heft when one considers that they needed a new drummer for the record, so they at first brought in Eric Singer, who’d most recently worked with that band…he left to join Kiss not long after mind you and was replaced by Micky Curry (who’d worked with the decidedly less-metallic Hall & Oates before) for the final recording sessions. Sessions which took place in Vancouver, with Bob Rock producing; Rock seemed to approve of the changes Rick Rubin had brought to the band with their previous album.

The result was a 10 song, 52” album of lengthy, crunchy rockers – only one clocked in under four minutes, and “Soul Asylum” ran seven and a half. Oddly, if you somehow were in Saudi Arabia at the time, you could have picked up an extended version of Sonic Temple, containing 14 songs. It’s unclear why they got to rock the casbah a little more than the rest of the world, but if you’re a completist…

The band’s sound didn’t change that much from the earlier days though, primarily because they were led by the core duo of Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy all along. Astbury is the lead singer, Duffy the lead guitarist and the duo serve like the band’s Mick and Keith, writing most of the songs together. Among the more notable of them on this album were “New York City”, with a little help from Iggy Pop in the background and the hit singles “Fire Woman” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)”. Obviously there was a little bit of a Big Apple influence going on; “Edie” was about Edie Sedgwick, a member of Andy Warhol’s entourage in the ’60s. She’d died of an overdose at 27, but not before being Bob Dylan’s girlfriend for a time (apparently his inspiration for “Just Like a Woman”) and starring in the Warhol film Ciao Manhattan! Astbury says “I was really interested in Warhol’s scene…really into Edie Sedgwick and was just compelled to write something.” Duffy added “being in New York City can get you very wrapped up in it.”

Critics took note… and didn’t all hold their noses. Reviews were mixed, but typically not great. The New York Times considered it “The Cult’s most conventional album and the most convincing one.” Crosstown, the Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau rated it “B-” but opined that they had “risen from cult-dom as a joke metal band (with this one) they transmute into a dumb metal band.” Rolling Stone and allmusic both give it 3.5-stars, the latter noting they were “trying several different metal styles, from crunchy ’70s grooves to…commercial ’80s hard rock. Not all of the experiments work, but enough do.”

Fans thought enough did too. While “Edie (Ciao Baby)” and “Sun King” were both rock radio hits in North America, “Fire Woman” was one of the band’s biggest-ever hits, hitting #1 in New Zealand, #15 in the UK, and while not being a major seller as a single in the States, reaching #2 on the Alternative rock charts. The album hit #10 in the U.S. and #3 in Britain, their best showing in either land, and hit #2 in Canada where it was double-platinum, double the level achieved in the other major markets. The band’s fire began to fizzle in the ’90s though, with two more albums receiving considerably lower sales and less praise before they broke up in 1995 (after which they have regrouped a couple of times.)

January 26 – Mudd-y Sounds Ruled 20 Years Back

Grunge had run its course by the end of the 20th Century, but the teen angst that apparently inspired it never quite went away. Twenty years ago, a new generation of p.o’d youth were growing up, seemingly thinking grunge was OK in its morose outlook on life but a tad too quiet and musical. Enter “nu metal”, or “alternative metal” the way Millennials chose to annoy their parents. It was the sound de jour , as shown by the success of band’s like Limp Bizkit, Alien Ant Farm, Sum 41 and of course, Puddle of Mudd who rose to the top this day in 2002. Their song “Blurry” went to #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock chart. It would stay there for nine weeks and end up as the year’s top Alternative song; about three weeks after topping the alt rock list, it also went to #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, where it also ended up on top of the year-end list. As a single, it hit #5 in the U.S.

Puddle of Mudd had by then been around for over a decade. They been formed by singer/rhythm guitarist Wes Scandlin in Kansas City in 1991. He says they got their name from the rehearsal space they used initially; right by the Missouri River, it often flooded a little although they were unconcerned since their space was on the second floor. They put out an indie EP in 1994 and played fairly regularly but with little attention until Scandlin decided to send a tape of their music to Fred Durst, the leader of Limp Bizkit. Durst liked them, signed them to his own label, Flawless Records (which was distributed by Geffen so therefore well-represented) and even found a new guitarist to back Scandlin, Paul Phillips. Mind you, if you ever end up talking to Scandlin, you may want to avoid Mr. Durst’s name. “He doesn’t write our songs, he doesn’t produce our songs, he doesn’t do anything for us…I don’t know what he’s doing, all I know is he’s ‘Mr. Hollywood Guy, Mr. Celebrity’…every single…interview I get asked about that …guy” he once noted to an interviewer in a highly expletive-laced rant.

Be that as it may, Durst took them to L.A. to record their first album with his company, Come Clean. It didn’t do much initially when released in 2001…hitting the shelves just days before 9/11 didn’t help any record. Nor did the reviews. Rolling Stone, for example gave it 2.5-stars but commented “it’s hard to imagine a record more indebted to the leading lights of grunge and less imaginative”, suggesting “Alice in Chains and early Days of the New seem almost visionary by comparison.” The first single “Control” got a little airplay in the States and Britain, but it took “Blurry” to vault them into the spotlight.

The song seemed to clearly be recognized as the album’s standout. Scandlin says he wrote it for his child, wanting to be a good father. His real-life son appears in the video. The song rocketed up the charts, topping both different rock ones for weeks as we noted, and winning the ASCAP Award for Song of the Year. It pushed Come Clean to the top 10 and triple-platinum status at home and made it difficult for a whole generation of school kids to correctly spell “mud.

Puddle of Mudd never matched that level of success again, although they did alright for a few years, notching three more Mainstream Rock #1 hits in the first decade of the ’00s. They’re still active, led as always by Scandlin…who’s probably still being asked about Fred Durst.

January 12 – Zeppelin Was Up, Up And Away

A group that moved the British blues movement forward and in new directions caught our ear this day in 1969 Led Zeppelin. Their eponymously-titled debut was released 53 years ago today, after the band had established themselves with months of touring Europe.

At the time, the band was essentially Jimmy Page’s project, having picked the other three members and written most of the band’s original material. That said, John Paul Jones had accrued an impressive resume by that point as well. While Page had recently been in the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and before that was a much in-demand session guitarist (working on records ranging from the Kinks and The Who – rhythm guitar on “I Can’t Explain” – to Van Morrison and even Petula Clark’s “Downtown”) , Jones was potentially even busier. He’d been one of the top English session musicians for much of the decade, both as a bassist and arranging string sections for everyone from the Rolling Stones’ (“She’s A Rainbow”) to Lulu. Surprisingly, Page’s first pick for drummer wasn’t John Bonham, but B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum. Robert Plant, a singer Page had seen in less-successful bands was recruited and sold them on Bonham. Good call!

They funded the recording of the record themselves, at a cost of just under 2000 pounds (about $4000 at the time or perhaps $30 000 today) and put it together in just nine days! This was accomplished, according to Page, by knowing the material well from the tours and putting it together in studio as essentially a live recording with little overdubbing or other studio enhancement. Page produced it but with help from Glyn Johns, the great Abbey Road sound guy who features prominently on the Beatles documentary Get Back. The album which gave us “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed and Confused” was panned by most critics. Rolling Stone gave it a famously bad review, noting that it did little Jeff Beck hadn’t done better already, comparing Robert Plant to a second-rate Rod Stewart imitator and saying while Page was “admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist” that he was a “writer of weak, unimaginative songs.” Only Melody Maker seemed to like it back then. That publication called it “a gas” and noted “their material does not rely on obvious blues riffs, although when they do play them, they avoid the emaciated feebleness of most so-called British ‘blues’ bands.”

The public agreed – by summer it had gone gold in the U.S. and was a top 10 hit there and in the UK, eventually selling some 15 million copies worldwide. It does bear noting though that the popularity wasn’t staggering right out of the gate. It peaked at #6 at home and #7 in the U.S., making it their only studio album not to get to #1 in the UK or at least #2 in the States. Oh, and Rolling Stone– they changed their tune. By 2003, they considered it the 29th best album of all-time! they now say of it that the band was “Still in the process of inventing their own sound…an astonishing fusion of Page’s lyrical guitar-playing, Robert Plant’s paint-peeling love hound yowl and John Paul Jones and John Bonham’s avalanche boogie” which “heavy metal still lives in (the) shadows of.”

January 3 – Dog-gone, Softer Approach Worked For Scot Rockers

This day in 1976 was a good one for Scottish bands. As we already noted today, the tartan-adorned heartthrobs, the Bay City Rollers spelled out what it takes to have a #1 smash in the U.S. with “Saturday Night” and the same chart saw Nazareth hit the American top 40 for the first time. The song that put them there was not only their biggest, but one of the first examples of a hard rock band doing a “power ballad”, a tender love song to widen their appeal. “Love Hurts”, but changing your sound up once in awhile doesn’t!

Love Hurts” was originally written as a country tune by Nashville writer Boudleaux Bryant, but was first recorded in 1960 by the Everly Brothers. It was a well-liked song but never released as a single, and remained largely unknown until the mid-’70s. Then, oddly enough, not only did the Scottish metalheads take a go at it, so too did Cher, and Jim Capaldi (who actually did the best on the British charts with the song, almost simultaneously with the Nazareth release.) Others including Gram Parsons have done it since.

Nazareth were by 1975 a successful touring act and albums band in their homeland and in Canada, where they’d already had three gold (or later, platinum) albums, as well as a few spots in Europe. But U.S. success had eluded them, so by the time of Hair of the Dog, their fifth album, they decided to change that. They had their own guitarist, Manny Charlton, produce the album, and of course, had the aching love song added in to their usual fare compared to Black Sabbath by allmusic. Mind you, record buyers in the States would have a taste of the more usual sound of the group if they flipped the single over, as the cowbell-ringing, hard rock staple “Hair of the Dog” was the b-side.

Although the song stalled at #41 at home, it did indeed break open the North American market for them. It was a top 10 in the U.S. and pushed the album to platinum status; to the north in Canada it was a #1 hit. But no one liked them like the Norwegians. There it was #1 for a record 14-straight weeks, making it chart-wise the biggest hit of the decade. So perhaps Norway love Nazareth, but it hurts that the entire country’s population is barely larger than that of Los Angeles.

Nazareth are still going but only one member of their “Love Hurts” lineup, bassist Pete Agnew is still a part.

December 10 – TSO A Real One Of A Kind. (Except There’s Two Of Them)

It happens every December. People are listening to snoozy, familiar Christmas songs on the radio; old crooners of yore singing about Frosty the Snowman or drunkenly imploring Mother Nature to let it snow when they’re jarred awake by something resembling a full-blown airstrike assaulting the senses with a carols reimagined as 100 decibel rock music. Or is it classical? It’s hard to put Trans-Siberian Orchestra into any musical box… other than the one marked “different”!

Or “popular”. This month Billboard put out lists of the most popular Christmas songs(singles) and albums of all-time. Trans-Siberian Orchestra – TSO for short – just missed the top 10 on both; registering the 11th most popular Christmas album (Christmas Eve and Other Stories) and 11th most popular Christmas song (“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12-24”). They assuredly are the “one of these things is not like the other” when put next to the Mariah Careys, Burl Ives and Michael Bubles also populating the top of those charts. But what exactly is TSO?

That’s a good question without a simple answer. Allmusic describes it as “session orchestras assembled for a number of symphonic-rock crossover albums” and shows. Others have defined it as a “symphonic metal” group. Or groups, because the membership is quite changeable and around this time of year there are often two different TSOs touring, playing the same music to the same stage shows. Such is the case this year apparently.

It was created by Paul O’Neill (not the baseball star.) O’Neill was a talented guitarist and in fact, multi-instrumentalist. He says he grew up on hard rock but also “Broadway musicals, Motown and singer-songwriters like Jim Croce and Harry Chapin.” He got work in Broadway orchestras for runs of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. In the ’80s he got into music production and promoting, producing a couple of Aerosmith records plus ones from lesser-known hard rock acts like Omen, and Savatage. He was an unofficial member of that speed metal-crossed-with-prog rock act through much of the ’90s, writing a good portion of their material and producing albums for them. Around 1996, he signed to Atlantic Records who told him to form his own band. To do that, he called on a trio of the guys from Savatage – Jon Oliva, Al Pitrelli and Robert Kinkel. But he had no intention of making them just another four-piece hard rock outfit.

O’Neill wanted to merge classical music and rock (something that the Moody Blues and E.L.O. had cited as a basis for some of their music as well) and make it BIG. Big sounds, big shows. He had an idea of doing a couple of rock operas as well as a trio of Christmas-themed records. He picked the name after visiting Russia, and specifically Siberia in the eastern end of the country. He found it “incredibly beautiful but incredibly harsh as well”… rather like the music he was setting out to make. That vast area was linked by the Trans-Siberian Railway, from which he drew the name’s inspiration.

Their first album was the first of their Christmas ones, and still their most popular. Christmas Eve and other Stories came out in fall 1996, sounding very little like anything else at the time. Although it did have some songs with vocals, its best-known works were all instrumentals derived from traditional Christmas carols (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) played like an orchestra doing The Who. Or maybe The Who doing Beethoven – who was the theme for another one of their albums, Beethoven’s Last Night. O’Neill described him as “the world’s first heavy metal rock star.” The first album’s best-known track though is instantly recognizable by ear, if not by name – “Christmas Eve/Sarjevo 12-24”.

That one with all its time changes and huge dynamic range blends in bits of “Carol of the Bells”, other Christmas standards and a quiet repose of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on cello. O’Neill got the idea from a story of a world-class cellist who returned to his homeland of Sarajevo to find the Bosnian War wreaking havoc on the once beautiful city. The rocker said the cellist was heart-broken to see the destruction and know it was caused by his fellow countrymen, so he went out for several nights before Christmas, playing his cello in the town square, often as bombs fell around the city. “The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, the single cello, that single individual…the spark of hope.” The single instantly found a home on holiday playlists and sold to gold levels and helped the album itself go triple-platinum in the States.

But more than their records, TSO are renowned for their highly impressive, and theatrical shows. Although they occasionally play in the first ten months of the year (for example, in 2015 they headlined a heavy metal festival in Germany in front of almost 90 000 fans, taking along two stages, a TSO signature) they are widely known for their Christmas music tours, an annual event (except for the pandemic-stopped 2020) that in the words of O’Neill was designed to be “as over the top as we can make it. We have two stages, with pyro, lights, lasers, on both sides of the arena… the best sound we can find. We want people to walk out of our shows speechless.” They also set out to help the communities they play in, donating some of the ticket proceeds for every show to local charities, usually ones helping children if they can. So far it’s donated over $16M in total.

Although sadly O’Neill passed away in 2017, his orchestra(s) continue on. This year’s tour began Nov. 17 in both Green Bay.WI and Council Bluffs, IA and fans today in Greenville, SC and San Antonio will have a chance to see if it leaves them speechless. It continues on til Dec. 23rd in Chicago, then resumes on Dec. 26, playing various Midwestern cities until year’s end.

November 8 – Zep Put Out One ‘IV’ The Ages

It was a “heavenly” day for hard rock fans 50 years back! Led Zeppelin put out their fourth album, generally called IV this day in 1971.

The band actually didn’t really put a title on the LP at first, nor their name on the cover much to the chagrin of Atlantic Records and their own manager. However obtuse their logic in doing so, it didn’t hurt. Led Zeppelin IV went on to be their biggest, and best-received album… and give high school dances something to wrap up with for years to come. Similarly, although they were a highly-regarded and hard-working (not to mention hard-partying) live act, they defied conventional wisdom by not doing any concerts, let alone tours, to promote their previous III album, preferring to take more time on writing new material and recharging their collective batteries for IV.

They did much of that at Headley Grange, a country house in England (which apparently had a big resident black dog, which gave them one song title!), using the Rolling Stones mobile studio, although they finished it up mixing it in L.A. Being there, along with the music of Joni Mitchell, of whom they were fans, helped inspire “Going to California” on it. Those recharged batteries resulted in their third straight #1 album in the UK and Canada, but in the States it only got to #2. That didn’t hurt it in the long run as it went on to sell over 23 million copies there alone, making it the fourth biggest-selling album ever. Similarly, it’s double-diamond status in Canada, and at 9X platinum in the UK, their biggest one there. The LP featured the single “Black Dog” (a top 20 in North America and Australia), the epic seven-minute “When the Levee Breaks” (which Mojo‘s Stevie Chick considers their “most ground-breaking track” due to John Bonham’s thundering and echoing drumwork) and of course the band’s signature, “Stairway to Heaven.” As you possibly know, that song wasn’t released as an official single, so despite its popularity, it never showed up on the Billboard hot 100 chart.

Although the BBC upon getting it declared it to be a perfect blend of the “folk” they experimented with on the previous album and the hard rock of II, all in all, reviews at the time it were mixed. But the album’s stature has grown steadily in decades since. Mojo readers would vote it among the 25 best albums ever in the ’90s, Entertainment Weekly would later grade it “A+” calling each track “awesome”. Power Pop, confirmed Zep fans, rank it as the band’s best, noting “the light and heavy were perfectly balanced.” Rolling Stone would call it the “peak of 70s hard rock” in ranking it among the 100 greatest albums of all-time (it actually rose to #58 on their latest such ranking of albums last year); Spin label it “the monolithic cornerstone of heavy metal.” Meanwhile, Classic Rock, true to its name, ranked it “greatest rock album ever” in 2001.

August 12 – Metal Fans Would Be ‘Unforgiven’ If They Missed This One

It was a difficult trick to pull off. AC/DC had flirted with it, Guns’n’Roses managed to do it with flair with their debut. Turn loud heavy metal into something agreeable to the masses and mainstream radio that is, and thirty years ago another name was added to the list – Metallica. They put out their fifth album, the self-titled one sometimes referred to as “The Black Album” this day in 1991.

Metallica were by that time a major concert draw and a band who sold respectable numbers. Their previous album, And Justice For All, three years prior had squeaked into the American top 10 and gone platinum. But for the most part their name was better-known than the loud, thrash metal they churned out. They decided to change that on this one, and to help do that, they brought in Canadian producer Bob Rock. Rock, a one-time member of the Payolas, was a rising talent as a producer and his work with Motley Crue the year before had appealed to Metallica. Drummer Lars Ulrich says “we felt that we still had our best record in us and Bob Rock could help us make it.” Turns out they were right.

Singer James Hetfield wanted to begin by doing shorter, more concise songs. “We had pretty much done the long song format to death,” he said, and so that was one change for them, even though of the dozen songs on the new album, only one clocked in under four minutes. He also had them play together as a band in the studio, “it lightens things up.” Something that was much needed since Rock and the band didn’t like each other that much. They weren’t at first over-joyed Rock wanted a full orchestra on “Nothing Else Matters” for instance, or that he cranked up the bass in the mix considerably compared to their earlier works. But they were smart enough to know that he seemed to have a goal in mind and help him along the way. It didn’t hurt that they created much more melodic and varied songs than they were known for at that point and Hetfield dug within himself for some fairly relatable, introspective lyrics. “The God that Failed”, for instance, was about his mother dying after her Christian Science religious beliefs stopped her from getting medical treatment.

The album comparatively laid-back and simple, compared to the previous Metallica records. So they decided on simple packaging, calling it just “Metallica” and putting it in a cover that looked just black. The LP had embossed letters spelling it out and a coiled snake, but one had to see it in just the right light to notice them. That could have been a marketing faux pas, but as the Beatles had proven with their “White Album” sometimes minimalism is maximum impact!

The album had just the right blend of hard rock and accessible melodies to not alienate their old fans entirely and win over millions of new ones. At the time, Entertainment Weekly graded it “B+” and suggested “Metallica may have invented a new genre – progressive thrash!” .Britain’s Q opined “Metallica’s managed to rekindle the kind of intensity that fired up the likes of Black Sabbath before heavy metal fell in love with its own cliches.” Of course, as Ricky Nelson once sang, “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.” There were a handful of bad reviews, some from fans who felt they’d “sold out” and some from the likes of Robert Christgau, who labeled the album “a dud – a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought.”

The public disagreed. The album took off quickly, actually entering ten different country’s charts at #1. Five singles rolled off it, and onto radio, starting with “Enter Sandman”, which hit #16 in the U.S. (quite good for a “metal” single) and made the rock radio charts top 10, as did “The Unforgiven.” All five would end up going platinum in Australia. “Nothing Else Matters” broke into the British top 10. The album sold…and sold…and sold. Eventually, it would sell upwards of 16 million copies in the States alone, more than any record since SoundScan was begun. (It is worth noting though that that happened years after albums like Thriller and the Eagles Greatest Hits were released.)

World-wide, it’s sold almost double that, making it probably second only to AC/DC’s Back in Black for worldwide heavy metal dominance. It’s diamond status in Canada, 13X platinum in Australia (where it was among the top 50 sellers of the year in 1991, ’92 and ’93) and 16X at home in the States. It logged over 550 weeks on the Billboard chart, fourth best of any album ever.

So how happy were they when they realized it was a smash? Well, one might wonder if he isn’t under-selling it but Ulrich says “I stood there in my hotel room and there was this fax saying ‘You’re Number One!’ and I was like “well, OK’. It was just another… fax.”

August 3 – Fans Were Hysterically Happy With Def Leppard Album

It’s an important anniversary for hard rock fans, and dare I say strippers! Def Leppard put out their long-awaited fourth album, Hysteria , on this day in 1987. Fans were more than ready; it had been over four years since their previous release, Pyromania which had introduced them to the majority of radio listeners.

There were a number of reasons for their slow pace. They worked with Mutt Lange, a noted perfectionist, but along the way they wondered if Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman could do a better job of turning out the record they dreamed of. He couldn’t, so they got Lange back. The biggest problem for the band though was drummer Rick Allen. He had a serious car crash on New Year’s Eve 1984 and had to have his arm amputated. This of course is a problem for anyone, but especially a drummer. He and the band decided he could stay on, and they custom-designed a kit for his now one-armed approach.

When all was said and done though, it seemed worth the wait. The album was a 12-song, 62 minute work – making it the longest piece ever crammed onto one single LP for those who hadn’t gone CD yet. And fans ate it up. By the time it was over, it had given seven hit singles, putting it in Michael Jackson territory. Which was no coincidence. Lange set out to make them make the heavy metal version of Thriller, an album so perfect every song could be out as a radio-friendly single. Of the seven, strip club staples “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Love Bites” stand out; the latter was their only #1 hit in the U.S. and the former close, at #2. (For the record, KROC-FM in Minnesota claims to have researched it and found “Pour Some Sugar On Me” the most-played song in girlie clubs…something I’m sure many male readers would like to research themselves.) “Animal” was their first top 10 hit back home in the UK, where their following curiously was much smaller. Throw in “Armaggedon It” and the title track, both also U.S. top 10s and it’s little wonder that Hysteria dominated rock charts for a full two years. Because of the length of time recording, the high-profile stature of Lange, the failed work with Steinman and the extensive equipment the band used, it was said that Mercury Records needed it to sell at least five million copies to break even on it. In the end, it did that and then some!  the album topped the charts in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and much of the rest of the world. It is 12X platinum in the U.S. and has topped 25 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest “hard rock” albums of all-time.

Many critics dismissed it, but with 25 million copies moved, someone must have liked it! Most of us would probably agree it’s a guilty pleasure of the ’80s. As Rolling Stone put it, when they ranked it among the 50 best “hair metal” records ever, it was “catchy, concise and more committed to getting parties rolling or groping groupies than conquering Valhalla” and it “holds up (more) musically than you might guess.” Hard to argue that!

July 21 – Public Had Appetite For GNR

Start with a bowl of traditional heavy metal, stir in a few tablespoons of T-Rex style glam and sprinkle it with a few dashes of ’70s-style punk and you get… well, most record execs and radio programmers would have guessed “something nobody wants.” turns out they were wrong, as we found out this day in 1987 (or actually, about a year later!) when Guns’n’Roses hit the scene with their debut album, Appetite for Destruction.

The L.A. band had been around for a couple of years and a well-known fixture on the club circuit by then. The core of the band, singer/songwriter Axl Rose, and guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin had known each other for years, performing in a band called Hollywood Rose prior to GNR. As such, they had most of the album (plus songs on an indie EP released a year before) ready by the time they hit the studio. They even had usable surplus – “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry” were among singles from later albums they considered for Appetite…

They signed to Geffen in 1986, and got ready to record. Although that process would take a few months and stops and starts to finish. They used four studios, the first of which was incredibly enough owned by Daryl Dragon – the “Captain” of Captain & Tennille. They tried to get Paul Stanley of Kiss to produce (a good fit perhaps given their love of some of the same elements as Kiss, namely loud rock, basic streetwise lyrics and a flash and flare seldom seen in heavy metal) but he and their drummer, Steve Adler didn’t get along. They made some demos using Spencer Proffer, who’d produced Quiet Riot’s big-selling Metal Health, but the fit didn’t seem right either. They requested super-producer Mutt Lange, but Geffen weren’t willing to pay his fee for an unknown band. So they settled on Mike Clink, a relative unknown who’d caught their attention working on the latest album by Toronto’s Triumph. When the 12 song, 54 minute album was done, top-hatted Slash said “we thought we’d made a record that might do as well as say, Motorhead.” Little did he, Geffen or anybody else know they’d made an album that would become the biggest-selling debut ever in the U.S.

Appetite for Destruction in some ways fit in with all the hair metal that was popular around then. Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt, had all made inroads to some degree into mainstream radio and were well-known faces on MTV. Guns’n’Roses weren’t an altogether different creature, but they were a little faster, a little louder, and seemed a little grittier. Sincere in their streetwise ways. Not to mention, their guitarists seemed a little more proficient and they ventured towards Zeppelin territory with a couple of songs rolling past six minutes, atypical for the hard rock of the MTV era. The public had an appetite for all that, apparently.

Although the first single, “It’s So Easy” went unnoticed and some might have figured Slash was optimistic comparing his record to Motorhead’s in appeal. But Geffen soldiered on and the band kept touring, and soon they hit the radio.

The next three singles haven’t left it since. “Paradise City”, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child’O’Mine” all took over rock radio and began drawing attention to the album that had been overshadowed at the time by releases by Def Leppard and Aerosmith. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” hit the top spot on the U.S. singles chart, one of the first “metal” songs to ever do that, or to score a platinum single. It is also one of only a handful of rock videos from the ’80s to have scored over a billion vie“Paradise City” topped Irish charts and made the top 5 at home.

Not that many publications noticed the album when it first came out, and those which did were of mixed opinions. Metal Hammer called it an “inferior copy” of AC/DC and Aerosmith; Britain’s Kerrang however were pleased “rock is at last being wrestled from the hands of the bland, the weak, the jaded, the worn.” Rolling Stone approved, but only when it came to their apparent notice, a full year after it hit the shelves. “”No other band this year, metal or otherwise, mocked the music establishment’s utter lack of street cred as well” they figured, adding “radio programmers slept, critics yawned but the kids voted with their allowances.”

That they did, and some adults too! It took a full year but eventually Appetite for Destruction made it to #1 in the U.S.. It would make it into the top 5 in the UK and Canada and sell 18 million copies (making it diamond and then some) at home, and about 30 million worldwide. My most definitions, only AC/DC’s Back in Black has sold more in the “heavy metal” genre. So universal was the gritty sound of L.A. and the skulls on a cross cover that the album went 5X platinum in Argentina! Speaking of that cover, it almost wasn’t. Axl wanted to use a photo of the Space Shuttle exploding for the cover; Geffen thought that might be pushing the envelope a bit too far and balked. they did release a few copies with a different cover first though; a … well, weird…cartoon picture the band describe as “a robotic rapist about to fall to a metal avenger.” Ok. If you happen to have the LP with that cover, you can probably cash it in for over $150 online and buy a whole lot more metal albums.

Over time, critics became a bit fonder of the album and its role in the ’80s. Spin, usually the bastion of all things new wave, would rate it a perfect 5-stars later as would allmusic. That reference call it a “turning point for hard rock in the late-’80s” and applauding Axl’s darker lyrics than his contemporaries and saying the “twin guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin makes it the best metal album of the late-’80s.”

Of course, despite some success into the ’90s, Guns’N’Roses never made it to the heights of their debut again and became almost a shorthand joke for dysfunctional bands. But with 30 million sold and three songs that still get heavy airplay, “Don’t Cry” for Axl and co.!

Continue reading “July 21 – Public Had Appetite For GNR”

July 20 – When Heavy Metal’s Wild Ride Began?

Heavy metal thundered its way onto the charts this day in 1968. In a way of speaking. Steppenwolf‘s iconic hit “Born to Be Wild” hit the American top 40 53 years ago, extra notable because it’s commonly credited with using the term “heavy metal” for the first time, although they in turn had come across the phrase in a William Burroughs novel which had a character named “Heavy Metal Kid.” And the “heavy metal” they were singing about was really the roar of motorbikes rather than loud music. But the term was born, their career was riding high and the song would soon be considered one of the first examples of… heavy metal.

It was actually the band’s third single off their Dunhill Records debut, which hit #6 in the U.S., where it went gold, and actually was a #1 hit in Canada. Not surprising that as they were essentially The Sparrows, a rock band from the lovely Toronto suburb of Oshawa (a certain music writer was born there too, nudge nudge, wink wink) led by growly-voiced John Kay. They’d relocated to California in 1967, got their record deal and went to work on their self-titled debut…after taking the name Steppenwolf on the recommendation of producer Gabriel Mekler, who’d just read the novel of that name.

The album had the FM staple “The Pusher” but lives on because of “Born to Be Wild.” It was written by a guy who goes by the name Mars Bonfire. Bonfire is actually the brother of Steppenwolf’s drummer, Jerry Edmonton and a former member of The Sparrows himself. He says he got the inspiration for the hit soon after arriving in L.A. He said “I saw a poser in a window saying ‘Born to Ride’.” It was a motorbike ad. “I had just purchased by first car, a little second-hand Ford Fiesta. So this all came together lyrically. The idea of a motorcycle coming along with the freedom and joy I felt in having my own car and being able to drive myself around whenever I wanted.”

The public felt joy when hearing the Steppenwolf record. Allmusic note it was “a surprisingly strong debut from a tight hard rock outfit.” “Born to be Wild” rode onto the charts alongside the likes of the Beatles and Motown acts and got to #2 in the U.S., #30 across the sea in the UK and was their first of two #1 hits in Canada, “Magic Carpet Ride” being the other. The song was elevated to cultural icon status a year later when it was used to great effect in the biker movie Easy Rider. Since then it’s shown up in any number of TV shows and movies including Miami Vice, the Simpsons, Punky Brewster and Dr. Doolittle. Perhaps the ultimate example of how ingrained into the culture it is was in 1994, when Ozzy Osbourne did a duet of it with Miss Piggy on a Muppets record!

As for “heavy metal”, Kay doesn’t actually see Steppenwolf as falling into that category. “We always considered ourselves to be a hard rock, blues-based band. For me, ‘heavy metal’ had its beginnings in Led Zeppelin.”