A to Z of Making It, Classic Songs to Be Discovered, Influenced, Music, My Stories

The Heart Beat of True Popularity Begins From Unpopular Positions

The kids of today are looking for the new and the different, while they are discovering the past with the help of their parents. If artists don’t have people dropping their jaws these days, chances are they are not going to last.

With this in mind, it got me thinking about Jeff Watson and his time in Night Ranger, along with that jaw dropping eight finger tapping technique.

In 1983, Night Ranger went from an opening act to a headlining act with the release of their second album “Midnight Madness” album.

I can’t believe that it is not on Spotify for me to officially stream, however if I go onto YouTube it is available in its entirety, to be streamed unofficially.

The band at the time was made up of Jack Blades – Bass/Lead vocals, Jeff Watson – Guitars/Keyboards, Brad Gillis – Guitars, Alan Fitzgerald – Keyboards and Kelly Keagy – Drums/Lead vocals.

Jack Blades once said that “Sister Christian” and the release of Midnight Madness was the band’s pinnacle moment.

So what happened.

Let’s look at Jack Blades first. His first band was called “The Nomads” and it goes back to 1966. He work with “Sly and The Family Stone” as a songwriter and experienced fame with funk rockers “Rubicon” in 1978 along with Brad Gillis.

By 1979, the band was no more. When “Rubicon” broke up, Kelly Keagy was their touring drummer. The trio then formed the band Stereo.

Stereo then ceased to be when a roommate of Blades called Alan Fitzgerald (bassist for Montrose, keyboardist for Sammy Hagar) suggested that they form a rock band. Alan knew a virtuoso guitarist called Jeff Watson from Sacramento, and with Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy coming over from Stereo, the band Ranger was formed in 1980. Due to a naming dispute, the name changed from Ranger to Night Ranger.

When Night Ranger broke up in 1989, Blades received a call from John Kalodner, then at Geffen Records. Kalodner mentioned to Blades that Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent are working on songs in New York, but something was missing. Kalodner thought that Blades would be a good addition to the equation. From one super group to another super group.

Anyway looking at Jack Blades, his year zero as a composer began in the “seventies”. His greatest work according to himself, happened in 1983 with “Midnight Madness”, which took place 17 years from when he joined his first band. From a Night Ranger perspective, it took the band three years to compose their greatest masterpiece from when they formed in 1980.

Next up you have Brad Gillis.

Gillis will always be remembered for replacing Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band immediately after Rhoads’ death in 1982. At the time, Night Ranger was still an unknown band from California. When Night Ranger got together in 1980, they focused solely on getting a major label deal instead of playing live.

In the interim, Gillis had a side project called “Alameda All Stars” that played the local clubs for extra cash. During one of those gigs, Preston Thrall, the brother of Pat Thrall was in attendance. After seeing Gillis tear up the stage covering a few Ozzy/Rhoads era songs, he mentioned to Gillis that he should audition.

For the history buffs, Preston Thrall told his brother Pat Thrall about Brad Gillis. Of course, Pat Thrall knew current Ozzy drummer Tommy Aldridge as they played together in the Pat Travers band. So Pat Thrall informs Tommy Aldridge and Aldridge them informs Sharon. At the time Ozzy was working with Bernie Tormé as an interim player.

In the end, Gillis didn’t feel that Ozzy’s band was the best fit for him. He saw another L.A band, Quiet Riot, get a record deal, and when he saw Rudy Sarzo leave to go back to Quiet Riot, Gillis left Ozzy as well, to go back to Night Ranger.

Jeff Watson is the X-factor here. While Brad Gillis is a good guitar player and Jack Blades gave the band it’s crossover rock appeal, Jeff Watson was the shredder that the band needed, which in turn gave the band some serious metal cred. Any person that transposes a piano piece he wrote to the guitar and plays it tapped with eight fingers, deserves a trophy in the Shred Hall Of Fame.

In my opinion Jeff lives in the upper level of guitar circles and his playing/technique is held in high regard. He was born and raised in Fair Oaks (Sacramento) California and started to play the guitar when he was seven.

He took it seriously when he finished high school and got a job at a local music store, where he launched The Jeff Watson Band. Eric Martin (from future Mr Big fame) was the first of three singers the band had. The band got a decent amount of radio airplay as the songs were being produced by both Alan Fitzgerald and Ronnie Montrose. The Jeff Watson Band even opened up for Sammy Hagar, Heart and Ted Nugent. It was while producing “The Jeff Watson Band” that Alan Fitzgerald decided to include Jeff Watson in any new project that he would be involved in.

Even though Jeff Watson doesn’t have a lot of song writing credits on “Midnight Madness”, his influence is still heard years after due to the lead breaks and the Eight Finger Tapping Technique.

Kelly Keagy started doing the club circuit in the Seventies and eventually entered the world of Jack Blades and Brad Gillis as a touring drummer for “Rubicon”.

Alan Fitzgerald goes back to 1974, when he played bass in the band Montrose. He went on to play keyboard for Sammy Hagar’s solo releases and was rooming with Jack Blades.

When “Midnight Madness” came out, Jack Blades was 29, Brad Gillis was 26, Jeff Watson was 27, Kelly Keagy was 31 and Alan Fitzgerald was 34. All of the members had paid their dues in other bands since the start of the Seventies. In other words they were seasoned. Music was all they had. There was no fall back position. There was no safety net or a plan B. It was all or nothing.

In a way, you could call Night Ranger a pseudo supergroup. Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy came from Rubicon. Alan Fitzgerald came from Montrose, Gamma and Sammy Hagar’s solo band. Jeff Watson came from his own solo band, that had songs on radio and production from Ronnie Montrose.

The album kicks off with the Jack Blades and Brad Gillis composition “(You Can Still) Rock in America”. How do you follow-up this song?

You don’t.

You change tact and go into the melodic AOR Rock format, popularised by Journey, REO Speedwagon and Styx. There is no point in trying to re-write a bona fide classic.

Two Jack Blades compositions come next in “Rumours In The Air” and “Why Does Love Have to Change”. That guitar intro in “Rumours In The Air” is smoking and the keyboard call to arms lead break after the first chorus shows that Fitzgerald wasn’t there just to play chords.

Side 1 ends with the anthem “Sister Christian”. The song is composed by Kelly Keagy. This is the era of the LP, when sequencing mattered. When the song finished it made you want to turn the LP over, so that you hear what was on the other side.

Side 2 opens up with two Jack Blades compositions in “Touch of Madness” and “Passion Play”. What a way to kick it off, with the tinker box intro that to be honest was used to maximum effect by Ozzy Osbourne on the song “Mr Tinkertrain”.

Not as strong as Side 1, up next was the Jack Blades, Alan Fitzgerald and Brad Gillis composition” When You Close Your Eyes”. A pure slice of melodic AOR rock.

The Jack Blades and Brad Gillis composition “Chippin’ Away” is next and the album closes with the Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy and Jeff Watson track “Let Him Run”.

Being different was a uniqueness when I was growing up. That was the space the heavy metal and rock musicians occupied.

It was an us vs. them mentality. The “Them” was always a moving target. It could have been teachers, parents, police officers, neighbours or anyone else that upset the status quo for the day.

The end of Night Ranger happened with the success of “Midnight Madness.” Suddenly, the band was on the radar of the record label. The label wanted another “Midnight Madness” so they could capitalise on the cash. It came in “7 Wishes”. Then the label wanted another “Midnight Madness” and it came in “Big Life.” 

The band went from outcasts and creating something new, to a maintenance model of new music, purely designed to earn maximum profits.

Music is best when it’s created and led by the outcasts, those artists that sit on the fringes. Record Labels and suits believe they know best, because all they care about is profits. Night Ranger sat on the fringes for “Dawn Patrol” and for the writing of “Midnight Madness”. 

Even Quiet Riot sat on the fringes. Then it all exploded with “Metal Health” in 1983. It took everyone by surprise. Then the money started to roll in from the large record label advances. Then the bands started to go on massive arena tours.

Suddenly, the bands are afraid to lose friends. Suddenly, the bands are afraid to stand out. The key is to be different AND liked.

Look at the now. Nothing sounded like Volbeat’s “Beyond Hell Above Heaven” previously but it was a huge hit. Protest The Hero are all twisted with their insane progessive songs, but they are embraced by a hard-core fan base that gave the band over $300K to get their next album done..

There is a quote that I remember from Adlai E. Stevenson that goes something like; 

“All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”

Put that quote in a musical context. All great music has resulted from people who lived as casts, who had unpopular positions, who wrote music because they wanted to write music, not because they wanted to make millions.

That is where the heart beat of true popularity begins.

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A to Z of Making It, Music

Nuno Bettencourt – Guitar World, September 1989

The article was written by Andrew Hearst, and it appeared on page 17 of the September 1989, Guitar World Issue.

“Be sincere.  Whatever you do.  If its Lawrence Welk you’re into or if its Eddie Van Halen, just be honest about it and love what you’re doing.”   Words of wisdom from Nuno Bettencourt, guitarist for Extreme, a Boston – based hard rock band whose self titled debut album was recently released on A&M Records.

A guitarist speaking his mind.  How many people speak their minds these days?  Not a lot, and if they do, they are scared of the haters.  Well guess what, if you seek the limelight, there will always be haters.  Remember, not everyone will love you, but your audience will.  If you love what you are doing, the audience will be able to feel it, they will be able to relate.  Your fans are not stupid, they will know if you are faking it.  Like when Def Leppard delivered Slang, or Motley Crue delivered Generation Swine, or Bon Jovi delivered What About Now or Metallica with Load and ReLoad.  We know that these albums are about chasing some fools gold, chasing an idea implanted in the musicians head by a manager, an agent or a producer.  That is why the people didn’t respond.

Extreme’s first album was produced by the super experienced Reinhold Mack, aka Mack.  His resume is a list of who’s who of classic albums.  Some of my all time favorite albums like Scorpions – Fly to the Rainbow, Deep Purple – Stormbringer, Deep Purple – Come Taste the Band, David Coverdale – White Snake and most of the ELO and Queen albums from 1975 to the mid 80’s had Mack involved, either as sound engineer or as a producer.

Born in Portugal 22 years ago, Bettencourt moved to Boston with his family when he was four.  As a freshman in high school he heard Edward Van Halen and was inspired to pick up the instrument.  Soon he was playing covers and originals in a succession of casual local groups; he calls Extreme his “first really serious band”.

Back in the eighties, bands normally were formed, they would chop and change musicians until within a few months a stable line up was confirmed.  It was expected that once you had a stable line up, you would start to play shows, build an audience and write killer songs.  By doing that, you are creating a buzz, and with that buzz, the good old Mr Record Man Gatekeeper, would come along and make you famous.  What no one told these poor suckers, is that the good old Mr Record Man Gatekeeper will also make them sign contracts that where far from fair for the band.   To put this into context, Extreme, were formed in 1985, signed in 1987, assigned to work with a master producer in Mack so that they develop their songs and sound and their first album hit the streets in 1989.  That is what bands expected in those days.

It doesn’t happen like this anymore.  Labels in the old sense do not exist.  They do not spend money on artist development anymore.  Why? Wall Street.  Labels need to answer to a board of directors and shareholders.  Their memo is to make money, not waste money on artist and development.  Remember Warner Music is going into business with Kickstarter.

“The biggest lack in eighties’ guitar playing is rhythm,” he says.  “There’s a whole other three minutes of a song to be enjoyed.  I love playing solos, but there’s a time and place for that.  There’s a whole other world out there to play with and people are missing it.”

Such balls.  Here is a new up and comer hot-shot guitarist and he is blasting 80’s guitar playing.  To be honest, he is not wrong.  I cannot list the amount of albums i purchased where the songs are lame as, however the guitar solo spot is a song within a song.  Keel is one band that comes to mind.  Yeah they had a few good songs on each album, however the rest of the songs where shite with good solo spots.  MacAlpine is another.  This was Tony’s attempt at having a vocal oriented band around his guitar playing.  The only problem is, you need to have the songs to make it work, not just the guitar solos.  He did it well with Project Driver (the supergroup featuring Rob Rock, Tommy Aldridge and Rudy Sarzo), however that was with more accomplished musicians.   Not a lot of people show balls these days.  We all want to be loved, even by the people who only like to hate.

Extreme headlined a scheduled 15 city club tour in April and May.  The group now hopes to land the opening spot on an arena tour.  “We just want a fair shake,” says Bettencourt.

That is what every band wanted back in the day.  Their careers where in the hands of the people who controlled them behind the scenes.  The label, the manager, the booking agent and so on.  They had to rely on all of the above to get a fair shake.  Seriously how fair was that shake to begin with.  All of the above mentioned people, take a generous cut from what the band makes.

These days, the fair shake is up to you.  You determine how high or how low your career goes.  You determine your definition of success.  Adam Duce got fired from Machine Head, because his heart wasn’t in it anymore.  His definition of success was different to what Robb Flynn’s was.  He felt like he toiled for over 25 years and still hadn’t made.  He wanted to be like Metallica.  But there is only one Metallica.  And since he wasn’t as famous as them, he didn’t see the point in continuing.

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