Black ‘N Blue

powerplay-bnb-1984All of us will be fans of a band who we think should have been huge but for one reason or another never really made an impact.This is despite releasing records and putting on live shows that were far superior to the more successful bands of the time. Whether it was down to bad management, the record company or just plain bad luck they just never achieved the success they deserved.

One such band is US hard rockers Black ‘N Blue who were part of the first phase of the burgeoning LA Sunset Strip 1980’s metal scene that brought us Ratt, Motley Crue, W.A.S.P. and Poison.

Black ‘N Blue were built around the song writing axis of vocalist Jamie St. James and lead guitarist Tommy Thayer. The five piece were completed by Jeff “Woop” Warner (guitar), Patrick Young (bass) and Pete Holmes (drums).

The band originally hailed from Portland, Oregon but soon realised that if there were going to get noticed, they had to relocate south down the west coast to Los Angeles. In the early 80’s the Sunset Strip on Hollywood Boulevard was fast becoming a hotbed of new bands that as it turned out went on to influence and dominate the metal scene for the entire decade. Giving birth to what we now refer to as “Hair Metal”

powerplay-bnb-1988Soon after arriving in LA in 1983 and playing the usual Sunset Strip clubs such as Gazzari’s and The Whiskey they caught the eye of Geffen A&R supremo John Kalodner who immediately signed them on a four album deal. As it turns out Black ‘N Blue were one of the first bands from the LA scene to be signed by a major label. The only band who were ahead of them were Motley Crue who already had an independent album (Too Fast For Love) under their studded belts and had just released their major label debut Shout At The Devil on Elektra.

Herein lies the first the first piece of bad luck or poor judgement to beset the band. Black ‘N Blue didn’t release their first record until the later part of 1984 by which time Ratt had recorded and released “Out Of The Cellar” and scored a massive hit with the single “Round And Round”. Motley Crue were also well on the way to world domination following the success of the aforementioned Shout At The Devil.

Let’s not forget that New Yorker’s Twisted Sister also hit pay dirt with “Stay Hungry” in 1984 and a New Jersey band by the name of Bon Jovi released their debut album that year. Anyway more of these two bands later.

powerplay-bnb-without-love-1985The delay was down to the selection of the producer of their first album. The band were big fans of European rock band The Scorpions whose rise to platinum status had been driven by producer Dieter Dierks. It was therefore the German Dierks they wanted to produce their debut release. However they had to wait for Dierks to become available. He was already committed to the Scorpions on what would become their “Love At First Sting” album.

The band travelled to Germany in early 1984 to record at Dierks’ studio in Cologne. On the way they stopped off in London to play a couple of shows supporting Whitesnake at the famous Hammersmith Odeon. It would turn out to be the first and last time they set foot on UK or mainland European soil for that matter in the life of the band.

So when their self titled debut album was eventually released in the latter half of 1984 the market was already crowded and the forces of supply and demand meant that it went largely un-noticed by the record buying public. This was a real shame because, in my opinion, it was (and still is!), one of the best releases that came out of the whole LA scene. That is a bold statement I know but in terms of song writing, musicianship and production it’s up there with the best of them. I have started listened to this album again recently and it still sounds as fresh and exciting as it ever was. A true test of a classic album.

Whilst Ratt went for the sass and swagger of Aerosmith and Motley Crue aimed at all out sleaze, the Black ‘N Blue sound was more rooted in classic ‘70’s hard rock with Kiss being one of their major influences. (Both St James and Thayer had been in Kiss tribute acts prior to forming the band)

The band were often compared to Twisted Sister around this time – well it didn’t help that Jamie St. James looked like Dee Snider’s kid brother! This is not entirely unwarranted because some of the tracks such as “The Strong Will Rock”, “School Of Hard Knocks” and “Wicked Bitch” do have an anthemic Twisted Sister vibe about them. Dee Snider and the boys must have taken notice of the album as they engaged the services of Dierks to produce their follow up to “Stay Hungry”, which resulted in the rather patchy “Come Out And Play”.

powerplay-bnb-without-loveThe rest of the album is made up of rocking gems such as “Autoblast”, “I’m The King” and “Chains Around Heaven” as well as the hit single that never was “Hold On To 18”. How “Round And Round” was a hit for Ratt and “Hold On” wasn’t for B’NB is beyond me!

The album also contains a cover of The Sweet’s “Action”. If you like Def Leppard’s version – that appeared in the mid ‘90’s on their “Vault” compilation – then this one is better. Rumour has it that Black ‘N Blue were not really aware of The Sweet and covering the song was only suggested once they got to the studio. Whatever the story is they made the song their own and it made a blistering opening track to side two of the record.

Some fans at the time thought the album was a bit too polished and didn’t reflect their grittier, harder edged demos. These demos were eventually given an official release in 2001 as “Anthology: The Demos Remastered Vol 1”. I don’t tend to agree with this point of view. I think that Dierks captured the essence and vibe of the songs perfectly in a crystal clear, crisp production that is both heavy and commercially accessible.

With their debut release in the shops, Black ‘N Blue headed out on the road picking up a prime support slot on the recently reformed Aerosmith’s Back In the Saddle tour of the States mixed in with their own headlining club dates.

One of these club shows was recorded for a local radio station and some 20 years later was commercially released as “Black ‘N Blue Live In Detroit 1984”. This together with a pro shot DVD recorded in Japan later that year – again posthumously released – show a band that could really cut it live. The band showcased some new songs in the Japan set but only one, “Rock & Roll Animal”, would eventually make it – albeit reworked into “Rockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – onto their next album.

Following the poor sales of their debut release, the band dusted themselves down and started writing material for their second album. This time Geffen dispatched them to Vancouver in Canada to work with a new hot production team of Bruce Fairbairn (producer) and Bob Rock (engineer). At the time Fairbairn and Rock were relatively unknown outside their native Canada but were beginning to earn a bit of a reputation through their work with Canadian bands such as Prism and Loverboy. They had also just worked on Swiss rockers Krokus’ 1984 release “The Blitz” that had sold reasonably well Stateside.

powerplay-bnb-genesimmons-1986This collaboration would result in another damn fine album called “Without Love”. It had more of a commercial sheen than the first album as both the band and Geffen made an all out assault on prime time rock radio. This is particularly evident on the first side of the record where Fairbairn weaved keyboards into their sound to create powerful radio friendly anthems such as “Without Love”, “Stop The Lightning” and “Nature Of The Beach” as well as the power ballad “Miss Mystery”. The later was the only single lifted from the album. It’s not one of my favourite BNB tunes and I can see why it didn’t fair very well in the singles charts. I for one think that either “Without Love” or “Nature Of The Beach” would have been much better choices for singles. So Kalodner’s knack for picking the right single certainly deserted him on this occasion.

The second side is much heavier, featuring the rampant “Swing Time” and a thudding “Bombastic Plastic”. The trippy “Strange Things” and the blues influenced “Two Wrongs Don’t Make It Love” close out the album and happen to be two of my all time favourite BNB tracks.

As with their debut, “Without Love” fell on deaf ears on its release in 1985. Even a prime time support slot on Kiss’ “Asylum” tour that year didn’t manage to find a mainstream audience for the band.

One person who did listen to the album was none other than Jon Bon Jovi. His band were preparing for their make or break third album, following the lukewarm reception to their second release “7800° Fahrenheit”. Bon Jovi liked the sound of “Without Love” and therefore decided to engage the services of producer Fairbairn and engineer Rock to produce their next record. As we all know, this resulted in the multi platinum selling “Slippery When Wet” which sent the careers of Bon Jovi, Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock into the stratosphere.

powerplay-bnb-one-night-onlyDuring the Kiss tour Jamie St James and Tommy Thayer approached Gene Simmons to produce their third album thinking that at least he knew what the band sounded like live. Simmons agreed. Now when Gene Simmons gets involved, he really gets involved, to the extent that he also contributes to the song writing process. On the positive side, he brings experience to the table but all too often the songs become “Simmonsized”. You only need to hear songs from not only Black ‘N Blue but Keel and Wendy O Williams to know that Simmons has exerted his considerable influence during his production work for these artists in the ‘80’s. Let’s face it the ‘80’s weren’t the best for Simmons and to put it bluntly (and this comes from a huge Kiss fan) his song writing in that decade largely sucked!

That said the resultant album “Nasty Nasty”, released in 1986, achieved what the band wanted with a stripped down altogether heavier sound that seriously rocks! However their record company would again screw things up. Instead of sticking with the heavier sound of the album, they insisted on including a song penned and produced by Journey’s Jonathan Cain. “I’ll Be There For You” – a keyboard drenched almost AOR song – was originally recorded for inclusion in the Iron Eagle III soundtrack. It didn’t make the final cut so Geffen not only insisted that it be included on “Nasty Nasty” but that it be released as a single. Net result: Both the album and single bombed. “Nasty Nasty” was by no means a classic but it deserved better. And that really was the last throw of the dice for the band.

Give Geffen their due though they stuck by the four album deal. Simmons was retained as producer for their final album for the label “In Heat” which was released with albeit with little promotional push in 1988. This is the weakest album in the BNB cannon. It does have some decent songs on it such as “Heat It Up Burn It Out” and “Suspicious” and but to me it has something of a contractual obligation feel to it.

The band fell apart soon after. Tommy Thayer would go on to join the Kiss Organisation acting as tour manager on their reunion tour in the mid nineties before replacing Ace Frehley as the Spaceman in 2003. Jamie St James went on to front his own band before joining fellow hair metallers Warrant. He features on their 2006 release “Born Again”. Drummer Pete Holmes joined LA rockers Malice and features on their Crazy In the Night EP.

The band would reunite for a one off show on Halloween in their home town of Portland in 1997, which is captured on their “One Night Only – Live” album. In what is very much a best of set, they showed that the chemistry was still there as they proceeded to blow the roof off the place. Every time I listen to this album it re-enforces my opinion that with a bit more luck on their side this band would have been huge.

The band have reformed again over recent years – sans Thayer of course, his place having been taken by Shawn Sonnenschein – and have featured on the bill at the US Rocklahoma festival a couple of times. There have been rumours of a new album called “Hell Yeah” for years and I’m delighted to hear that premier hard rock label Frontiers are finally set to release it in May of this year. The new album will feature their first recorded output for nearly 25 years and I for one can’t wait to check it out. I hope you will do likewise because these guys really deserve another crack at the big time.

Recommended Listening

powerplay-bnb-collectedIf this has whetted your appetite for checking out the music of Black ‘N Blue, then I’d suggest you start with their first two albums “Black ‘N Blue” and “Without Love”. Both were re-mastered and re-issued by Majestic Rock Records in the UK in 2003. You could go the whole hog and purchase the “Collected” box set. Although it was a limited edition release, again by Majestic Rock, it’s still available on line at a decent price and contains the four original studio albums along with a DVD of a live show from Japan shot in 1984. There’s also an “Ultimate Collection” compilation that cherry picks most of their best tracks and “One Night Only – Live” is a great live document from this criminally underrated band.

by Alister Strachan