Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Whitesnake - Live In 1984 - Back To The Bone - For Sykes' Sakes, This Boot Fits....
This is the one we've been waiting for for 30 years - documentary evidence of just how good Whitesnake was when guitarist John Sykes led Coverdale's army in league with Cozy Powell, Neil Murray, and the late great Jon Lord. We'll bow our heads for the loss of Powell and Lord (as well as Mel Galley) from this world's ranks, as they were giants of our times. Now, on with the show.
This is an interesting package, and I wish I could say that the DVD looks and sounds fantastic, but to be honest, I've no idea. In a great gaff that owes either to the vagaries of modern business costs, or (and I'd love to think this isn't the case) incredibly shortsightedness on the part of the producers/distributors, the press has only been issued the audio for the bonus CD from this set. That being said, I'm sure it's grand, as David Coverdale has always put his absolute best face forward with his product, but as one writer who has been consistently supportive and prides himself on telling it like it is, I won't attempt to mask my disappointment (and a bit of snarky pissed offedness) at not being able to actually tell my readers what the main event holds.
Slide It In - this album is one of the pivotal moment in '80s hard rock, as David Coverdale molted a layer of classic snakeskin, and got himself a new sleeker, more metallic look and sound. This is one of the more misunderstood releases of the era, as the US version of the album is not just a remix, but rather there are actually content differences which include guitar parts added by new guy John Sykes (who had just left the employ of Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy), new bass as played by the returning and always excellent Neil Murray, and additional keyboard ornamentation by one Bill Cuomo. The raw bluesy approach that gave birth to The 'Snake was being usurped by MTV's desire for glitz, and an audience that was ever into more modern guitar sounds. How you feel about this change is most likely dependent upon your age and your tastes, because both were equally fantastic. The comparison can be heard on the band's 25th Anniversary repackage that includes both versions (highly recommended).
Meanwhile, what we're really hear to discuss is the bonus CD - comprised of: nine tracks that comprise Snakeskin Boots - Best Of The Bootlegs, three audio tracks from Super Rock 84 in Tokyo, and a sixteen minute audio medley of Jon Lord's final performance with the band, recorded in Stockholm, Sweden on April 16, 1984. Mel Galley had just been sidelined by a broken arm, so we're left with Whitesnake featuring a single guitarist for the only time in their history, and this is where John Sykes light shined brightest. Lord is only on keyboards for the three song EP from Sweden - an offstage Richard Bailey plays on the remaining tracks, and of course, without Lord it's a very different, much more guitar-centric band. And a brilliant one at that.
History lesson aside, this is the best chance we'll ever have to hear one of hard rock's greatest tag teams working in a live configuration, and Coverdale and Sykes might be the genre's greatest case of 'what if?' They weren't together nearly as long as the world would have liked, and from listening to these tracks it's sure not hard to hear why.
I'm reviewing this slightly out of sequence, electing to look at things chronologically. That places Lord's final performance first instead of last, and it's understandable that the keyboards play a much larger role with Jon's synth parts sitting alongside Sykes guitars. Don't be misled by Coverdale's ripping, "Good evening, Las Vegas," he's only being cheeky. Gambler is the first track, and the first things you notice are the much more galloping metal approach by Sykes, who also ratchets up the solo with his distinctively charged, high octane lead lines that place the band more in line with a world that was favoring Eddie Van Halen, Ozzie's guitarists, Gary Moore, and Michael Schenker. The blues was taking a backseat to the speedier, higher gain take of rock. The other thing you may notice is that Neil Murray was a huge part of Whitesnakes signature sound - his playing is not just chock full of melodic treats, his sense of rhythm may trump the treats as you realize that his swagger matched that of his boss.
You can surely hear Thin Lizzy's influence on the band when the band rips into Guilty Of Love, so it sounds completely natural for Lord and Sykes to be playing the harmonized intro. This is pure metal of the day, and it was certainly state of the art - Cozy Powell sounds like he's having a great time, Murray is on fire, and while I haven't yet mentioned Coverdale's performance, I don't really feel the need. Suffice to say, in 1984, David Coverdale was the best hard rock vocalist in the universe, and even if you don't like the direction he's taking his band, you have to admit that it worked. And, if you're listening with an open mind and heart, you'll hear that he may have had the best band in the world that year.
John Sykes and David Coverdale were a musical match made in heaven. The blonde bombers were at the height of their glories while they rode together, and the ride ended all too soon. For all the wonderful axemen who've followed in his footsteps, no one ever took Whitesnake to a higher plain. Whatever differences caused their split is a damned shame for all who loved their glorious noise. Guilty Of Love is a great example, and as he later proved in Blue Murder, Sykes also had a fantastic voice, and when he and David sang together it was sublime. Sykes' solo is a barnburner, and this may have been the first display of Whitesnake as a huge arena rock monster.
Love Ain't No Stranger is the final cut from the Lord portion of the show, and it fully divorces the band from it's past, being written by Coverdale and Mel Galley (ex-Trapeze), who original guitarist Mick Moody said never fit in with the band. Coverdale had other ideas, and this period in Whitesnake's history is all about re-concepualization, change, and reconfiguration. Again, success is the measure, and Whitesnake became hugely more successful. A shame that in all of this the band lost Jon Lord to a reforming Deep Purple.
Moving on to Best Of The Bootlegs - I've no notes of where these tracks came from, aside from obviously being from the Slide It In Tour of 1984. Gambler opens up the set, and it's clearly from after Lord had left the band. Richard Bailey is both located off the stage, and he's much further down in the mix than Lord had been. That being said, Sykes owns this one - his solo is fleet fingered and his rhythms are extremely confident. Also, by now you can clearly hear his voice, and it certainly makes me miss his presence on the scene all the more.
Guilty Of Love is up next, and it's a slightly lesser recording, with the keyboards being all but missing, and Murray's great bass tone being a bit muddied by what was obviously not a multi-track recording. Still, it's The 'Snake in '84, I'm not meaning to carp - you've still got to own this. This is Coverdale at his very best onstage.
This being the best of the bootlegs, Love Ain't No Stranger is not great sonically, but it's nice to hear yet another take on Syke's solo as he jumps out of what sounds almost like a soundboard recording. As boots go, this is better than most you've heard, and it's another great performance by the principles.
Slow An' Easy is a classic - maybe the Whitesnake classic. Mind you, you're never going to hear that slide guitar intro in quite as beautiful a fashion as you will when Micky Moody played it on the original UK mix (it is, after all, his riff, and he is, after all, Micky Moody), but this is still a swell live version, and this is a fabulous example of a perfect hard rock rhythm section as Cozy Powell cracks that incredible snare intro, and Neil Murray makes the beat move with his percolating bass line. Sykes contributes some trademark pinch harmonics, pick slides, and you can hear just how much he had absorbed of Gary Moore's hard rock moves when he takes his histrionic solo. Plus - you get to sort through this and hear Coverdale intone, "Big tits!" It is rock 'n' roll, right?
Cozy Powell explodes on Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues, and you hear why he was every hard rock/metal acts choice for the drum still throughout the eighties. Never is it more clear as to how this band was changing than it was on this tune - it had been supercharged, and there was no going back. The keyboards are almost more of a hindrance than anything here, and one wonder if this version of the band should not have been a four piece. Coverdale? Great again, and I've grown weary of saying this, so you can assume it for the rest of the review. Remember? The best hard rock singer in the world in 1984.
I never saw this iteration of the band, and this sure makes me wish I had. Ready An' Willing simply cooks in this version, and Neil Murray better damned well get paid for his contribution on this set - he loudly proclaimed that he wouldn't on his Facebook wall, and I'd love to see him get proven wrong. This is fabulous. If you don't dance to this, check that pulse, baby, check that pulse.
Where in the hell is John Sykes? I heard he had an album in the can with 30 tracks recorded a couple of years ago, and with the possible exception of Coverdale's other buddy, Blackmore, I can't think of anyone I miss more from the face of rock 'n' roll. Johnny, come home, we miss ya.
John's 'Oh, so slow,' solo leads into Crying In The Rain, and again, this iteration of the band comes to own this tune. Coverdale made the right call at the end of the day. In order to take things to the level he desired he had to up the ante, and he did it. He wanted to make The 'Snake not just a European favorite, but the biggest hard rock band on the planet, and I'll be damned if he didn't. This is by far, by far his best solo on the set, and I'll go so far as to say that it alone makes the purchase of this set essential. It defines John Sykes at his very best. And nobody could kick a guitar player in the ass like Cozy Powell. This is transcendently great. Yeah, Coverdale is equally great here.
Soldier Of Fortune is the loser on this disc. David's in fine shape, but the keyboard accompaniment is much less than stellar, I'm afraid.
There are three more tracks here, but I've covered them all above, and as they are from one of the three nights at Super Rock 1984, I'm going to assume that you'll hear very similar version when you buy the DVD - because you must buy the DVD. If you don't it'll make me wonder if you ever even liked hard rock, for this is the apex, and as I said, I haven't had the privilege of seeing or hearing the main course, but my appetite has been aroused sufficiently to tell you that this is one of those absolute, no doubt about it, must haves.
Did I mention that I'm a little peeved at being fed in the back like kitchen help? David, Frontiers, your loving press deserves a little better.