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John Sykes – A Lesson In How Quickly The Recording Business Can Ignore You

“There’s been a riot down on Main Street tonight, they just went crazy, they set this whole town alight”.

I reckon it will be a riot when John Sykes does release some new music.

It’s been years since John Sykes started working on a new album. At this point it might never come out. I thought when Mike Portnoy was attached, and knowing how hyperactive Portnoy is, we could get an album to come out, however it never eventuated. Counterparts from his era, like George Lynch, release music on a consistent basis and go on the road, playing clubs. Jake E.Lee has started to do the same thing.

“Blue Murder” was the album that was supposed to break John Sykes as a standalone artist. It didn’t.

Here’s the story.

John Sykes was placed on a Geffen deal as soon as he was fired from Whitesnake. Geffen by the start of 1987 was not a power player in hard rock circles. However, during 1987, three significant releases changed that. The self-titled Whitesnake 1987 album, “Permanent Vacation” from Aerosmith and “Appetite For Destruction” from Guns N Roses. Suddenly the label was the one that mattered. It was the label to be on.

Blue Murder started off with John Sykes. It was his record deal. Ray Gillen came in on vocals early on and Cozy Powell was on drums. Ray Gillen left or according to Kalodner was told to go, and Tony Martin was brought in. Ray Gillen would of course go on to join Badlands, while Tony Martin would hedge his bets with both Black Sabbath and John Sykes. As ever, it would come down to money and a new record deal for Iommi and Black Sabbath would ensure that Martin remained there. “Valley Of The Kings” would be the only remnant of the Martin collaboration. Powell departed to join Black Sabbath as well, and Carmine Appice and Tony Franklin came in. More hired guns that John Sykes had to pay from his monies.

After three years in development hell and production delays, by 1989, Blue Murder releases their debut album. But Geffen Records was a different beast in 1989 than it was in 1986. It was the label to be on if you had the commercial runs on the board. They had more successful acts to support and market than before.

The following albums also came out in 1989 via Geffen Records. Blue Murder and John Sykes needed to compete with these artists for marketing dollars.

  • “Slip Of The Tongue” (RIAA: 1 million plus sales) also came out and the album was originally withheld by Coverdale, while Geffen supported and marketed the Blue Murder album.
  • “Pump” (RIAA: 7 million plus sales) from Aerosmith also came out.
  • “The Great Radio Controversy” (RIAA: 2 million plus sales) from Tesla was also released.
  • “The End Of Innocence” (RIAA: 6 million plus sales) from Don Henley also came out.
  • “Heart Of Stone” with the big hit “If I Can Turn Back Time” (RIAA: 3 million plus sales) from Cher also came out.

In addition, Blue Murder and John Sykes, needed to compete with albums released on other labels, plus massive albums from 1986, 1987 and 1988 that still sold a monza. Hard Rock became a commercial product and image was important.

Then there was the stupid image of Blue Murder. Seriously, what weed was John Kalodner and Geffen Records smoking when they decided that the pirate/buccaneer look was the right look for a band called Blue Murder. In an era of MTV, it was a ridiculous move.

Maybe it was the historical and mythical lyrics from “Valley Of The Kings” and “Ptolemy” that just didn’t resonate with a wider audience. To me, John Sykes is one of my favourite guitarists, and his work on those two songs can only be described as monstrous.

Regardless, the late Eighties was the era of the hot-shot guitarist and John Sykes was a hot-shot guitarist. But the album didn’t keep the sales numbers clicking over and after six months it was all over.

Maybe David Coverdale was to blame.

Maybe Geffen didn’t give the record the correct marketing budget compared to other acts.

In the end, it was an expensive exercise for Geffen Records, who kept John Sykes and the project in development and production for three years.

By 1993, (yep, 4 years later) when “Nothin’ But Trouble” came out on Geffen, it was already over. The vocalist hired at the time was Kelly Keeling, however apart from “I’m On Fire”, all of the other songs got redone with Sykes doing lead vocals again. Their final album on Geffen, was a live recording called “Screaming Blue Murder” and it was only released in Japan. Of course, once iTunes came out many years later, it was made available worldwide.

It’s all about people.

One of the reasons why new Sykes music has been delayed is the team to push the new album has to be invested in the project. By 1989, Geffen was a money-making machine. That is all that mattered, making money. Relationships between label and artists, didn’t happen, unless you happened to be Aerosmith or Guns N’Roses or you had a management team that shook the foundations.

Because how many times have you heard; to be successful, it starts with great music. In Blue Murder, we have great music, but even back in 1989, there was so much noise, it was hard to break through the clutter. And an artist succeeds on momentum. One success leads to another. When an artist has been out of the public conversation for so long, is the fan base of John Sykes still interested to invest in purchasing his new music, when it comes out?

“It was built by flesh and blood”

To close off with a lyric from “Valley of The Kings”. While the lyric talks about the building of the pyramids, you can use it right now about life. All of our careers are built on flesh and blood. And the value that we attach to our careers is not the same value that someone else attaches. And that in essence is the music business. The same value a musician attaches to their music is not the same as another persons value.


10 thoughts on “John Sykes – A Lesson In How Quickly The Recording Business Can Ignore You

  1. I think Cov put the oL block on Blue Murder since they were both on Geffen. Sykes I think was a victim maybe due to laziness but more so to record company politics. A shame really as I bought the debut (Blue Murder)and than nothing here in Canada was heard again from Sykes but man that 87 Snake record is a Extravaganza In Guitar Playing.

    • Totally agree with you. The Whitesnake 87 album along with the RR Tribute album formed my bible for learning how to play guitar. Great songwriting and great playing.
      I really liked the BM album. Musically It’s better than SOTT from Whitesnake. But some of those lyrics are questionable and fail to connect.
      Thanks for the comment

  2. Maybe the issue wasn’t that they were blocked by Whitesnake in a literal sense. It was more a issue with image and lead singer. In the late 80’s all the big bands had the hot singer in addition to the hot guitarist. That was the combination and when the group only had one, it was the singer that move the scale not the guitarist.

    Whitesnake had Coverdale. Bon Jovi had JBJ, Motley Crue had Vince, Poison had Brett, GNR had Axel, David Lee Roth was headlining as a solo artist, Van Halen hired Sammy, Aerosmith had Steven Tyler, U2 had Bono, Ozzy was in his prime, ACDC were going strong, Robert Plant was out there alone with Robert Palmer, and Def Leppard.

    It was a strong period for music and Blue Murder didn’t have a singer or a song that was able to punch through the amount of strong commercial material. Queensryche was having a tough time finding commercial success but they found a foothold. Living Color made a little noise because they were different. Skid Row appeared on the seen with Sebastian and made some noise.

    You have said it so many times how important image is and how important it is to get noticed. Even starting with the name of the band, they failed marketing 101. I know what a white snake is, but what is a Blue Murder?

    Love everything you write. Thank you for keeping this era in our minds.

    • Great comment.
      Totally agree with your viewpoint. They did try and get a singer before the debut and the tried again with the follow up.
      All to no avail. But you are right, the combo was hit shot Singer and hot shot guitarist.

      Let’s not forget Dio, Ratt and Dokken.

      • I didn’t think of Dio, you are right to mention him.

        I took Ratt and Dokken off my list because by that time, they were almost out of the spotlight because of their respective issues.

        Probably could have added Iron Maiden and Metallica to the list but they both seemed fringe group to most everyone in the general population.

  3. Curt Olson says:

    Late to the game here. Listening the the first BM recording and started surfing around. Sykes is a ripper. His pinch hit on Slide it In is amazing, the follow-up was electric (Dunbar really delivers on drums too). BM was solid with both Franklin and Appice contributing to the sound that wasn’t captured with the different band on Nothin But Trouble. A couple of points…. Ray Gillan could have brought that lead singer charisma (clearly he had a full set of ego and health problems). The pirate image thing I never thought about, not sure it mattered. Kalodner was golden at that point. He was so close here. But one thing has always struck me…. With a name like Blue Murder, it is like asking for failure. Only The Killer Dwarfs had a worse name. Short of a Sykes fan, who rushed out to buy Blue Murder?

  4. A great post about an amazing band in Blue Murder and a fantastic guitarist in John Sykes. I have been a Blue Murder fan since the debut album first came out. I absolutely love John Sykes as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Thanks for bringing some light to one of the most overlooked guitarists of the 80’s and 90’s.

  5. Laura McGovern says:

    I really miss John Sykes amazing music. Valley of the kings is such an awesome song. And David coverdale BIG MISTAKE!!!!!!!!! letting John Sykes go.

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