Friday, August 1, 2008

Reboot, AMG, and Enuff Z'nuff, part 3

Time to break out of my one post a month rut and get the second post of August in early.

I broke into my heavy metal digression last time because I felt the need to explain how shocked I was when the "Similar Artists" links of one of "my" bands included Enuff Z'nuff. (Which band it was, I no longer remember.)

You see, when I was talking about the split in the metal community in the 80's, I was hardly speaking as a passive observer from back in the day. Rather, I was a rabid, glam metal hatin' thrasher. And Enuff Z'nuff was the puffiest, glammiest, silliest looking pack of lipsticked poodles of the whole bunch. (The name, by the way, is derived from bassist/songwriter Chip Znuff's name.) Because of their image, they were a joke, even among the Poison and Warrant fans. And me... See, I didn't give Guns 'n Roses the slightest chance for years, simply because Axl had his hair all spiked up like a chick in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video. (A look he quickly dropped, by the way.) If I wasn't going to give the slimiest, grittiest, punkiest thing to spew out of L.A. since Fear a chance, I sure as Hell wasn't going to give that bunch of pop princesses a second thought.

(This is not entirely true... In the late 90's, a bar I frequented in Champaign, Illinois called Creamy's had an autographed picture of the band hanging on the wall. Creamy's didn't have live music very often, and when it did, it was local blues and folk artists. So I had no clue why there'd be an Enuff Z'nuff picture on the wall... It's not like they ever played there or anything. So I often wondered why the heck the picture was there. Other than that, I never gave them a second thought.)

But there was the link. And had never steered me wrong, right? So what was I supposed to do but click it? And what did I see?

First the biography by Ed Rivadavia that starts intriguingly enough...
If there is such a thing as false advertising in rock & roll, then Enuff Z'nuff is one of its textbook examples. Packaged in garish peace-glam attire by their record company, the group was wrongly lumped in with the disposable pop-metal bands of the late '80s (Poison, Warrant, etc.) rather than appreciated for the truly gifted power pop act that they were. By the time they finally managed to shed their deceptive camouflage, it was much too late to turn public opinion, or their fortunes, around.
I mean, if that's not going to suck a music junkie like me in, what is? "You mean there was an incredibly dorky, hideously silly glam band that was actually secretly a really cool rock band hiding under all the mascara and lip gloss? I gotta check this out! I gotta freak out my friends with this!" (When I talk to myself, I also imagine I have friends who care what music I listen to.)

Let me make this clear, I have absolutely nothing against dudes that dress up like chicks and then play loud rock n' roll. I certainly love the New York Dolls, early KISS (about which I'll be writing much more in the near future), Alice Cooper, David Bowie, T-Rex, etc., etc. It's just with all those poofters from the 80's there was all form and no substance. They wore their androgyny to be cute and cuddly, while in the 70' the Dolls and the rest were trying to be sleazy and dangerous. Warrant got all glammed up to fit in with everyone else. The Dolls did it to be completely different from everyone else.

So, suffice it to say, I had to dig deeper. On to the discography!

Their 1991 album, "Strength" got 4
½ stars. You mean there's a 4½ star power pop album that I not only don't have, but that I've never even heard of? The plot thickens.

O.K. I think it's time to go into another digression. This time, "Power Pop." What's that? O.K., it can probably best be described as music by bands who stopped listening to anything that came out after 1967. For them, pop music culminated with "Sgt. Pepper," "Younger than Yesterday," "The Who Sell Out," "Forever Changes," and the other masterpieces from the Summer of Love, and there wasn't much point in going beyond that. So, power pop probably started with the Move and the Nazz, a couple bands that were about two years behind the trends of the day, but still excellent. (Particularly the Move, who were to later transform themselves, oddly enough, into ELO.)

And then, in the 70's you had the Beatles and Who obsessed Cheap Trick (check out their self-titled 1977 debut for Cheap Trick at their most unhinged and 1978's "Heaven Tonight" for the more polished product), the Stones to Beatles transformation of the Flamin's Groovies (see the 1976 classic "Shake Some Action" for the Groovies at their most Beatle-rific - they sound like a Mersey-beat contemporary from 1964), the much tamer Beach Boys-esque melodies of the Raspberries (the 1991 Capitol Collectors Series compilation is still probably the best/easiest way to get a good listen, but the 2003 import "Overnight Sensation: The Very Best of..." does a better job of showing off the harder rocking side of the band), and the fantastic Kinks-y Big Star fronted by ex-Box top, Alex Chilton (see the CD compilation of their first two records, "#1 Record/Radio City") .

But, when I see 1991 and hear "power pop" in the same paragraph, I instantly think Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, the La's, the Jellyfish and like bands. There was a minor explosion of 60's inspired rockers overshadowed by the grunge explosion that was happening at the exact same time. (This "minor explosion" was a gigantic, seismic event in the U.K., with bands such as Pulp, Suede, Blur and Oasis changing the face of British rock, but while these bands certainly were heavily influenced by 60's bands like the Beatles, Who, and Kinks, they also looked a lot more forward than the much more "trad" power pop bands.) In fact, in many ways the two scenes were simply two sides of the same coin. Bands like Nirvana and the Screaming Trees certainly showed their fetishes for artists like Dylan and the Doors, even if it was filtered through intermediary bands like Cheap Trick and U2. The real difference was that the power pop bands of the 90's listened to "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and the Dukes of Stratosphere a lot more, and Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, the MC5, and the Stooges a lot less than their grunge contemporaries.

So here I am looking at the review for "Strength," again by Ed Rivadavia, and salivating over lines like this:
Arguably the greatest Abbey Road tribute and/or rip-off of the early '90s (depending on who you ask), Strength was sadly lost in the shuffle of the alternative rock revolution and through sheer record company incompetence, and Enuff Z'Nuff would sadly never recover.
So a few months later I'm walking through Best Buy and see the newly re-issued "Strength" lying on the shelf for a reasonable price. I got to buy it, right?

Of course I was a bit disappointed. How could I not be? I had built it up too much. But, it was also nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Enuff Z'nuff were not the corporate hair hacks that they appeared to be in the promo shots and videos. (Good Lord! Look at the back cover photo! They make Poison look like he-men!) They had quite a bit of talent and wrote some really good songs.

The album starts off with the utterly forgettable "Heaven or Hell," which sounds like someone at the label told the guys in the band that they needed a "rock anthem" to start the record out, so they mailed in the tritest effort they could. The second song on the album is much better. "Missing You" is a nice mid-tempo blues not too different from Cheap Trick's "Need Your Love" or, with Donnie Vie's raspier voice, maybe some David Coverdale era Deep Purple. Another highlight is "Holly Wood Ya" which sounds like it could have come straight off of a Posies or Jellyfish album, and has great vocal melodies, a nice catchy tune, and great lyrics. "Long Way to Go" is a fine Aerosmith-like rave up. "Mother's Eyes" and "Blue Island" are nice big-melodied sing-alongs. The best song on the album is "The Way Home/Coming Home" which starts off as a nice piano ballad and then accelerates into a ballsy rocker.

The rest of the album is sort of "meh." Too much of it sounds like standard corporate rock, with little production touches thrown in to sound Beatles-y. A little mellotron twirl here, some backwards masking there, a little string flourish over there. But the sound is much more obviously influenced by Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and in their quieter moments, Badfinger. Certainly not bad influences to have, but nothing that makes Enuff Z'nuff any different from dozens of other bands from the late 80's and early 90's who used those exact same influences to form the corporate crap I detested so much. Except that Enuff Z'nuff were better singers, better song-writers, and better musicians.

But, overall, this isn't really what I'd call power pop. Too often, the rhythm guitars crunch instead of ring, the instruments fall into a lock-step blues shuffle too often, Derek Frigo's lead guitar buzzes around in George Lynch-ian histrionics, and Donnie's vocals lapse into metal-y screeching instead of singing too much. Still, the tragedy here is that Enuff Z'nuff should have found an audience. If they had only been marketed more like, say, Tesla or Queensryche, two of the more mature-audience oriented commercial rock bands to have huge success at about the same time Enuff Z'nuff were wasting all that hair spray and rouge while their career was being flushed down the toilet.

Actually, there is one band I can think of that was extraordinarily like Enuff Z'nuff, that did eventually have great success of a sort... Mother Love Bone. The sounds of the two bands were actually quite similar. Very Aerosmith derived. MLB was more unhinged, EZ more poppy. But still... "The Way Home/Coming Home" and "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns" are pretty similar. Of course, Mother Love Bone never actually found success other than posthumously. Andrew Wood died and the core of the band went on to have unbelievable success as Pearl Jam with a short stop in Temple of the Dog, first. (The sheer number of ways in which Mother Love Bone was a better band than Pearl Jam will have to wait for another blog.)

The sad details of the remainder of Enuff Z'nuff's career, I'll leave to Ed and his biography on allmusic. As for me, I'm glad I got that album. Heck, I'm listening to it right now. As to whether this story is a warning to listeners to not judge a book by its cover, or to bands to make sure their image meets the music they're pumping out, I'll let you decide.

I'll be back soon with Mojo, guilty pleasures, and KISS!!!

Reboot, AMG, and Enuff Z'nuff, part 2

I’ll start with a digression into heavy metal music.

When people of my generation (grew up in the 80’s) talk about “heavy metal” they are actually often talking about two different things. There’s “heavy metal” the musical form featuring bar chords, distorted guitars, unconventional vocals (yelling, growling, or screaming), and lyrics focusing on confrontational, controversial or taboo subject matters. Then there’s the “heavy metal” image, a mixture of the “leather man” from the Village People and a puffed-up, pink poodle wearing lipstick. Quite often bands which play the first definition of heavy metal did not conform to the image of the second definition of heavy metal, and vice versa.

People forget that one of the notable, “out there” and “cool” things about the thrash bands (Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, etc.) of the mid- and late-eighties was that they dressed like “normal kids off the street.”

Back in the 80’s, after a couple heavy metal albums (Def Leppard’s “Pyromania,” Van Halen’s “1984,” and Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” in particular, all from 1983/84) rocketed up the charts, a number of bands incorporated the “look” of heavy metal, while playing a polished commercial pop/rock that had little to nothing to do with the music. Bon Jovi was the first and most successful of the “poseurs” as we called them back then. There soon developed a strange dichotomy within the “metal community”; or more properly, there soon developed two communities which deemed themselves “heavy metal.” The commercial, “mainstream” bands that throughout the decade into the 90’s would continue to exaggerate the look while polishing all the edge off of their sound. These bands had their big power ballad hits, and then faded from consciousness soon after. Then there was the thrash underground, that blossomed into all sorts of creative directions while taking a very “punk” attitude towards image, but was only ever able to make Metallica anything more than a cult phenomenon.

Older metal bands that pre-existed the split were forced to make a choice: go hair or go underground. Many chose to “go hair,” KISS, Motley Crue, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, etc. They managed to stay popular or even regain popularity temporarily, but never put out any good music for the rest of their careers, and with the exception of Aerosmith were completely buried by the alt-rock explosion of the 90’s. Some tried to straddle the line and found their career heading off into oblivion until the alt-rock revolution allowed for a come back: Alice Cooper, Ozzy Ozbourne, Scorpions, Judas Priest. Then there were the few who stayed underground, while never losing their core fans, never really got all that popular: Motorhead, W.A.S.P. And one notable band tried going back and forth, managing to utterly destroy a promising career: Celtic Frost.

Only two bands seemed to be able to straddle the line while retaining credibility with the “thrashers” and popularity with the “glam crowd” – Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses. The first because of sheer talent, exuberance, and the fact that they were always somewhat outside the heavy metal crowd to begin with – the glam image wasn’t all that different from their original presentation. The second because they were a band, whether due to plan or accident, that seemed to be created for no other reason than to destroy the pre-conceived notions of genre that had so calcified the rock of the 80’s – they served their purpose like lighting and then just as quickly disappeared.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself…

Let’s time travel back in time to 1988. Turn on MTV eleven o’clock, Saturday night. Headbanger’s Ball, the purported late night “heavy metal” show. They’d show Poison’s “Nothing but a Good Time,” followed by Megadeth’s “In My Darkest Hour” (before the latter was banned due to supposedly pro-suicide lyrical content), and to our modern eyes and ears we’d have to wonder what in the heck these two songs were doing on the same specially targeted genre-specific show. You’d have to wonder why anyone would think that the fan of one would like the other. They didn’t even have the superficial image similarities that you would have seen five years earlier if you’d have compared, say, Mercyful Fate and Venom to Motley Crue and Ratt.

So what you ended up with is resentment. The “thrash” crowd didn’t like the “glam” crowd because, despite the great critical acclaim being heaped on the thrashers’ music of choice, the glammers appropriated the name of the thrashers’ music, claimed it as their own, saw it get tremendously popular, and then had the whole world think “that wimpy crap” was heavy metal while Slayer and Metallica didn’t even bother making videos because they knew MTV wouldn’t play them. The “glam” crowd didn’t like constantly being told how bad their music was by both the critics and the fans of “real” metal.

The rivalry extended to the bands, too. Sam Dunn’s “Heavy Metal – A Head Banger’s Journey” (2006) has a great interview with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, talking about how much he resented Motley Crue and Ratt when they were still all playing the same clubs in Los Angeles, to the extent that Lars would hurl invectives to the guys in Motley Crue in the street and then run away. (Apparently, Nikki Sixx is a pretty big dude, and Lars isn’t.) The interview was spliced together with an interview with some of the guys from Ratt who were completely baffled by the sentiment… “We’re all metal, aren’t we?” Apparently not.

So what does all this have to do with Enuff Z'nuff and Looks like I’ll have to get back to that in part 3.