1987 was, of course, the year that’s always going to be labelled in retrospect as the year of the ‘Snake. The Whitesnake album that took that year as its moniker still stands tall as perhaps the apotheosis of hair metal, 23 years after the fact. It’s the album wherein WS mainman David Coverdale made the final transformation from beer-bellied pub rocker to preening, poodle-haired prince of slow poke music, and by God I’m glad he did.
Tune-wise, the band’s previous album, the gonzoid Slide it In, probably shaded 1987, but the lineup that recorded it - all stout yeomen of the calibre of drummer Cozy Powell , bassist Neil Murray and guitarist Mel Galley, men whose hairlines were receding at approximately the same speed as their guts were expanding, was just not cutting the mustard in that exciting, video-obsessed MTV age. Something had to give.
Something did give, in the shape of the above mentioned musos being handed their cards and moved on to a life jamming with Brian May, to be replaced with an altogether more pulchritudinous lineup featuring the likes of ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes (he of the leonine mane and pinch harmonics that were enough to make Zak ‘Wylde’ give up and go home) and former Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo. These, alongside former Jethro Tull drummer Aynsley Dunbar, were the men who created 1987 with Coverdale, and in the process defined a whole genre.
Kicking off with the ludicrous Still of the Night, a gargantuan Zeppelin pastiche that to this day still causes outbreaks of feverish air-cello down at the local nostalgia hop, 1987 quite simply doesn’t let up for a minute. In the year of its birth, SOTN was simply where it was at, a thrilling synthesis of everything we loved about metal, muscular enough for the boys whilst still preserving enough pretty-boy panache to keep the ladies happy. A thunderous statement of intent, Still... was followed by the no less ludicrous Bad Boys, in which Dave pronounces himself ‘the black sheep of the family’ before presiding over four minutes of glorious rock n’roll noise, Sykes’ megalithic staccato riffage providing the perfect foil to Coverdale’s uber-melodious warbling.
After that killer one-two you’d think the band might need a rest, but... no. Next up is the jaunty rockn’roll of Give Me All Your Love, a bar room bruiser capable of trading blows with the best of ‘em. Coverdale had always harboured the greatest regard for Texan boogiemeisters ZZ Top, and in this song we find some truth in the cliché ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’... GMAYL is a tail-chasing anthem to match Top’s Tush, a barrelhouse blues that would become a live mainstay in years to come – not the greatest on vinyl maybe, but a classic all the same.
Of course they couldn’t keep this momentum up, so Looking For Love, the album’s first ballad, gave us all a break. That said, Sykes’ guitar playing on this track was incendiary, his stentorian riffage accented by frankly gargantuan soloing, the whole lot propelling along a song that could have become cloying into the area we in the trade know simply as ‘brilliant’.
Side Two started with a titanic revisiting of Crying in the Rain, a song first found on Whitesnake’s 1982 outing, Saints an’ Sinners. Argument raged at the time between traditionalists – the sort of people who wore floppy, wide-brimmed hats and trousers constructed entirely of bar towels, and who stank of patouli oil – and forward thinking modernists such as myself as to which album boasted the better version, but one fact was agreed on by all – it was a fucking majestic song.
Of course I was right – listen to the two side by side to day and tell me I’m wrong - and the song sets up side two perfectly. Power ballad to end them all Is This Love followed, in the process pulling down the blinds on the band as far as millions of casual observers were concerned. But the ‘snake ain’t merely a ballad band, as evinced by the next cab off the rank, Straight from the Heart. A straight-up rocker, it’s a song that could easily have featured on any of the band’s preceding two or three elpees; the difference here being the song has been given a sparkling, pop-friendly arrangement, again augmented by Sykes’ stellar axework, the result of which is a song very much of its time in 1987 – a glittering mix of (as the K-Tel compilation of the time might have had it) Leather n’Lace.
There isn’t a duff track anywhere on 1987; indeed it’s only now, side two, track three, that the attention starts to wander on the slightly workaday Don’t Turn Away. But even then another startling performance by Sykes lifts the song out of the mire, turning it into something rather more rewarding to listen to than a great deal of the dross offered up to us in the here and now that's lauded by those 'in the know' as something special.
Children of the Night, despite its horrible title and worse lyrics, is still, against all the odds, a rousing crowd pleaser, riding in on a fluid Sykes riff that is as good as Coverdale’s ludicrous emoting is bad. It’s a testament to the man’s guitar playing that you don’t dismiss Children... as mere fluff. Indeed it’s that superior craft all through 1987 that marks it out as an album for the ages as opposed to a limited-appeal period piece. The whole thing is rounded out by another trip back to 1982 in the form of a revamped version of the band’s signature tune, Here I Go Again. This time I feel the traditionalists were right to arc; the new version, shorn of Jon Lord’s original Hammond-organ intro, sounds production line where the original was one-of-a-kind, but this one faux pas shouldn’t besmirch the name of what is, and will always be, the most perfect exposition of hair metal known to man.
It couldn’t last, of course. By the time I went to see the ‘Snake at London’s Wembley Arena on New Year’s Eve 1987, Sykes’ good looks, fine playing and awesome singing voice had become too much for the Coverdale ego. He was out, replaced by former Dio man Vivian Campbell and Dutch Axepert Adrian Vandenbergh, whilst Dunbar had been eased out of the drum seat to be replaced by mercenary skinsman Tommy Aldridge. It didn’t matter of course; the new ‘Snake exploded into life on the Wembley stage with such ferocity that the force of my headbanging caused a massive nosebleed to erupt from the front of my face, showering those in the rows in front of me with a fine dose of claret. Did the drenchees care? Of course not. They, like me, were in the presence of hair metal royalty. And that was all that mattered.
Whilst I was preening in the mirror like some cock-rockatoo, others were surprisingly unmoved by these seismic hairspray-assisted rumblings.
One such man, Hansi Kursch, a man himself immersed in metal but of a decidedly thrashier variety, was on the verge of unveiling his own idea of ‘our kind of music’ on the world in the shape of his life’s work, Blind Guardian. Like Whitesnake, Blind Guardian are still hard at work... indeed by the time your eyes feast on this column they’ll be knee-deep in promotional work for their ninth studio album, the spiffing At the Edge of Time. Back to the Future decided to afford Hansi some of its bandwidth to have a chat about all sorts of things pertaining to the world of heavy metal...
When Hansi rings me he’s steeling himself for a day of phone interviews, and I’m steeling myself to ask him the big, possible unpopular questions… but first the usual stuff – a new album Hansi!
“Yes, it has taken a long time, but we have been working constantly since we came home from the Twist in the Myth tour! We had no plans then, but we were asked to write the theme music for a computer game (Sacred), which we did, and we were pleased that it went so well it gave us the momentum to carry on and make a new album.”
The track I’ve heard ( A Voice in the Dark) seems to me to be very much a return to the band’s speed metal roots. Would you say that is true?
“Yes, but this album really has a mixture of songs and styles, going all through our career. Because Sacred had to be a very metallic song, we wanted to do something else like that, which how the song Tanelorn comes about; But there are all aspects of our former albums too.”
With an album comes a tour; how do you go about selecting which songs make up a set list at this point?
“We have around ten songs, songs like Valhalla, that we have to play and that we love playing. Then another ten songs maybe that we feel should be played, and then of course there’s the new album. We rotate songs from those groups, and each night we’ll play four or five from each. We have around thirty five songs ready at the start of each tour.”
And now to that possibly uncomfortable question – you’ve covered John Farnham’s You’re the Voice for this album (which was a hit in England in…1987!) how did this come to pass?
“You know, in the nineteen eighties I listened to nothing, absolutely nothing, but heavy metal. Even bands that I loved as a kid, like Deep Purple and Queen, I put aside and I was only into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and later the Bay Area Thrash scene…when we came to record our debut album Battalions of Fear, we went into the studio, a professional studio, for the first time, and a very fine German singer, one of the finest the country has known, said I should listen to John Farnham. You’re the Voice was a very big hit single at the time. He said John Farnham was a fine vocalist and that if I were to idolize anyone it should be him! This was a change for me! But it is a great song, still played on the radio every day in Germany!”
And really, I guess, not so big a left turn for Blind Guardian – I can see how it would actually fit in the bands repertoire quite snugly, what with its anthemic nature and bagpipe-led Celtic frippery?
“Yes, you are right. Some aspects of the song are absolutely Blind Guardian! The chorus and the bagpipes I had no problems with… but the verses were more difficult. It was quite tough to make them ‘metal’!”
I’m guessing the decision to record the song has caused a bit of debate amongst BG fans? Hansi starts laughing
”It has caused many divisions! It’s like East versus West Germany all over again! Even my wife and me – it’s dividing families! Usually I speak to my wife about the cover versions we do, but You’re the Voice seemed so right we consulted nobody! My wife is not so big a fan and was not pleased when she found out!”
She’ll come round, I’m sure!
Anyways, enough of this postulation. Here’s the thing we all really want to know about… What’s Hansi Kursch’s Back to the Future-approved virtual festival lineup?
“Well, I think I’d like to see Queen headlining, but I think I’d like to see them with John Farnham! I think he would have been a much better fit for the band than Paul Rodgers... then in support of them I would like to see Loreena McKennitt, maybe Tori Amos. And also Deep Purple of course, then I’d like to go back in time and get Rainbow right at the start after the Deep Purple days, with Ronnie James Dio on Vocals.”
So that’s it for another month, or is it? Metalheads the world over are clamouring to give their thoughts on our virtual festival... even the young people. F’rinstance, here’s Scott Richmond of your own, your very own Buried In Verona (currently celebrating the release of their coruscating sophomore release Saturday Night Sever) with his thoughts on the matter:
“1. Metallica - early 1986. It would have been amazing seeing the late Cliff Burton rocking out.
2. The Smiths - My favourite band, would have loved to have been able to see them before they broke-up and hated each other in 1987.
3. Pantera. R.I.P Dimebag
4. August Burns Red. The best metal band out there and also the tightest live band going around
5. Michael Jackson - Just after the BAD album. He was only a little bit weird at this point in time. I would die a happy man if I was able to see MJ perform live.”
Bloody hell Michael Jackson in BTTF? They said it would never happen...
Until next time!