When Jon Bon Jovi helped his high school friend Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo get a leg up in the music industry by securing his band, Skid Row, a record deal with Mercury Records, there may have been more to it than simple friendliness. Sure, he made millions of dollars at the band’s expense, but perhaps there’s more to it. Perhaps he saw in Skid Row the band Bon Jovi could never be, the band Desmond Child beat out of them. He saw a band who didn’t need radio hits, didn’t need a clean-cut image, didn’t need pristine production- he saw a band which was rough around more than just the edges, who musical similarities aside presented a far removed picture from the hit machine that was Bon Jovi. Like Bon Jovi, Skid Row feasted on a diet of big dumb riffs, big dumb vocals and big dumb choruses, but unlike Bon Jovi they were physically big and dumb to match.
Skid Row had n enigmatic young frontman named Sebastian Bach, for whom a successful set necessitated losing his clothes; hitting the right notes was a bonus. They had a big dumb guitarist named ‘Snake,’ who mimicked big players like Van Halen and Sambora but had the creative brain to back it up, and a bassist named Rachel Bolan who, four albums and almost twenty years later, has still yet to play an audible note on record but were he to do so, you can bet he’d play big dumb plodding bass notes. Together they wrote big dumb rock songs with dumb lyrics and big dumb choruses, exquisitely delivered by their big dumb frontman.
Dead horses successfully beaten, we return to Bon Jovi. 1986’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ defined, in the terms outlined above, what pop-metal should sound
like in the mid-80s; Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite For Destruction,’ a year later, showed us what the world wanted its heavy metal bands to look, sound, act and feel
like. Now, with the short-tempered ginger frontman’s troop on an extended hiatus, there was a hole in the market: Sebastian Bach didn’t just fill it; he had sex with it and wrote a song about how he’d slap it if it got out of line.
Now, it would be easy to over-estimate the importance of Skid Row. As a musical outfit, they were definitely one of the more talented of the era; Sebastian Bach was comfortably the most talented vocalist of the glam era (his flair for over-performing made him the perfect suit for the role of Jesus in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.) His bad-boy good looks and his distinctive ‘wail’ invited obvious comparisons with Axl Rose; Bach helped the comparisons immeasurably- in a short two-year period both men created controversy with their anti-gay sentiments, Bach wearing a t-shirt bearing the words ‘AIDS kills fags dead’ and Rose, who’d originally considering naming his band ‘AIDS,’ slamming homosexuals for ‘spread[ing] some ***ing disease.’ Yet, coming in at the tail-end of the glam era, Skid Row ultimately had zero impact on the musical scene yet, ironically, they were one of the genre’s biggest (only) innovators.
Regardless of whether one liked Bach’s over-dramatic stylings, they set him apart from the so-called ‘cash crop,’ the pleasant-but-common vocalists like Warrant’s Jani Lane and Poison’s Bret Michaels or just downright terrible singers like Cinderella’s Tom Keifer, and as such made Skid Row a slightly more interesting proposition than most. Still, interesting doesn’t equal innovative, and I did make a bold statement moments ago. Skid Row’s place in glam history wouldn’t be cemented until 1991’s Slave To The Grind
when they essentially became the first (and only?) ‘thrash glam’ band, laying down heavy, violent rhythms without losing the poppy-punk sensibilities their hair metal roots (pun intended) afforded them but they did give less-than-subtle hints on Skid Row.
In fact, almost the entire album is heavier than logic would dictate a radio band should be- even the ballads are heavy! Album closer ‘Midnight/Tornado’ is the perfect starting point for this purpose, as it’s the strongest hint as to the band’s ‘future’ sound as exists on the album; thematically and vocally, ‘Midnight’ resembles Shout At The Devil
-era Mötley Crüe, closing with an Iron Maiden-like contrapuntal guitar solo, before the plodding extended heavy metal coda ‘Tornado,’ which resembles one of Metallica’s slower instrumental pieces.
Still, Skid Row
is primarily a party album, and many a party tune does it contain. Skid Row may be best remembered for their ballads, but just as well-known is their rallying call, their ‘Welcome To The Jungle,’ the wild anthem ‘Youth Gone Wild.’ While the guitar riff bears more than a slight resemblance to Mötley Crüe’s ‘Too Young To Fall In Love’ and the shouty chorus echoes ‘Wild Side,’ it is nonetheless Skid Row in a nutshell- fast-paced, autobiographical, beat-you-over-the-head heavy metal. Similarly, Bach’s sole lyrical contribution, the oh-so-aptly titled ‘Makin’ A Mess’ is the story of a wife-beating fiddle
player, who makes it big at a honky-tonk club up north, or something equally plausible. A live favourite due to its fast tempo and a favourite for the band to jam to, the tune is a straightforward hard rock song elevated by Bach’s virtuosic vocals.
Now, I mentioned Bon Jovi earlier and not without cause. It’s arguable whether Skid Row’s strength or weakness lay in their ‘pop’ songs, but regardless Skid Row
contained some of the ‘80s most enduring radio hits. Family-friendly rockers ‘Can’t Stand The Heartache’ and ‘Sweet Little Sister’ sat well alongside more raucous anthems like ‘Big Guns’ and ‘Rattlesnake Shake’- the former earning much radio play at the time of release. The only aspect which lets the rock songs down in the tepid rhythm section; rhythm guitarist Scotti Hill’s playing was rarely heard in the studio, and Rachel Bolan’s was, as previously mentioned, never heard. The real villain of the piece is drummer Rob Affuso, whose uninspired two-tone clunk would eventually improve by the next album. For now, Skid Row had to amplify their best qualities- Snake never missed a chance to shine, but Sebastian Bach sold records.
Album sales were mostly propelled by its two ballads, which showcased the singer’s remarkable Bruce Dickinson-informed vocals, his keen sense of melody and his boyband (in the pre-boyband days) good looks; they were the band’s most enduring effort, ’18 & Life’ and ‘I Remember You,’ aka the Sebastian Bach Show.’18 & Life’ followed closely the ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ formula, drawing on the same country/folk influences as Jon Bon Jovi to tell the story of Ricky, the prison-bound tearaway with ‘a heart of stone.’ This is where Bon Jovi and Skid Row differed- Bon Jovi’s hero was ’down on his luck’; Skid Row’s hero made his own luck. Its record speaks for itself- the song receives as much airplay today as any other hit from the ‘80s. ‘I Remember You’ is a different beast entirely, beginning as a light country-ish ballad, with Bach pronouncing ‘I woke up to the sound of pouring rain…’ before loud guitars and drums (it’s Affuso’s best performance) come in like thunder; from here the piece progresses into a harder-hitting type of rock ballad, punctuated by honest, regretful lyrics and Bach’s thickly-layered expressive vocals. If ever proof was needed that power ballads could be anything less than terrible, this is it.
Before I wrap up the piece, I must return to the statement I made regarding Skid Row’s status as an ‘innovative’ band, and they surely are. Yet I’ve spent the entire review recalling similarities to bands like Bon Jovi, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe; and the truth is, they are heavily informed by these bands. Yet Skid Row have their own sound, soon to be perfected on the follow-up, and their own voice. Their innovativeness comes with their fusion of contemporary influences and strong roots in the past, as their rock songs show a reverence for punk, AC/DC and Black Sabbath alike and their ballads show a folk and country background. They may have had little time to take the genre forward, and they may not have been groundbreaking
, but with Skid Row
they produced an album with a strong footing in pop, rock and metal which could stand out from the crowd on its own merits. And that in itself is worthy of commendation. That the album makes a great soundtrack for a party is a healthy bonus.