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David Coverdale and the White Snake Band
When the mid 1980's came along, glam rock was in. Bands like Poison, Motley Crue, and Cinderella were eating up the Sunset Strip in California and America couldn't get enough. Seeking to acquire the ears of the American people, Coverdale, lead singer of the English hard rock band, Whitesnake, realized that Whitesnake's sound needed some revamping. The guitars would become more blaring, shredding guitar solos would be implemented in every single one of their songs, and Coverdale even adapted his singing voice to fit the style. Because glam metal was basically an invention of the record companies to sell records (the "Top 40's" genre of yesterday), it remains unclear as to how much creative control Coverdale surrendered in the studio. However, Coverdale has more recently stated that around then late 1980's and early 1990's, Whitesnake lost their direction.
The musical journey of Whitesnake, enhanced my interest in the concept of glam rock and how something could be so prominent that it would force an already well-established group of musicians to revamp their entire sound and possibly compromise what could have been the beginning of something timeless and special.
Things began to make more sense once I learned about the band Slade.
Slade is a 70s English hard rock band that is considered to be the first socially significant glam rock band. After accruing wild commercial success in the UK, American record labels became very interested in their music. Then, in 1983, American glam rock sensation Quiet Riot released the album Mental Health. Mental Health featured the now mega-hit song, Cum on Feel the Noize. What a lot of people don't know is that Quiet Riot's Cum on Feel the Noize is actually a cover of Slade's Cum on Feel the Noize. Glam rock had been around in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1983, when Quiet Riot released Mental Health, that glam rock became viable for serious commercial success. It was that year that power-chord based rock and roll would begin its brief moment in the spotlight. Men wearing spandex, perming their hair, and applying make up would now be sexier than it had ever been for women. After a long period of metal rockers wearing all black and trying to look as manly as possible, the only thing that could be manlier would be to look like a woman (No amount of research can justify this fact). Regardless, Quiet Riot's Mental Health paved the way for such bands as the aforementioned Poison, Motley Crue, Cinderella, etc.
Prior to beginning research, I primarily listened to Whitesnake's music from the mid-late 1980's, which encapsulated more of that rebellious and loud glam rock sound than any of their previous work. All it took was one listen to their earlier album, "Slide It In" and I realized that I had my work cut out for me. Whitesnake has gone through a plethora of subtle reinventions, band line up changes, and genre enhancements. Now, all of that is really just fancy talk for a band thriving to maintain relevance and popularity in an ever-growing and always-expanding industry. Whitesnake is a prime example of a musical endeavor that uses the technology of the music industry for its gain instead of becoming slaves to a corporate ideal of money-making music.
At the helm of these musical renegades stands front man and head songwriter, David Coverdale. David Coverdale was born and raised in a small town in England and began performing in professional bands at the early age of fourteen. He played with the famous 1970's rock band, Deep Purple before forming a band of his very own. Coverdale was interested in a solo career and simply having an accompanying band to perform with him. They were called "David Coverdale and the White Snake Band" but eventually just became Whitesnake. Coverdale kept the same kind of sound that Deep Purple had but with a much different style. Their blues-rock singles were met with instant popularity in the UK, as the musicians that comprised the band were already well known throughout the England rock-circuit.
In 1983, Whitesnake had a breakthrough with their album "Slide It In". This album featured a very blues-oriented type of metal rock. The main theme throughout the album seemed to be heavy bluesy guitar riffs that would introduce the respective tracks and then continue into a very melodic or sometimes ballad-type of feel. Coverdale is the product of many years of working intensely in the music industry, and Coverdale had become adept at identifying what kind of music works and what doesn't (in both a commercial and artistic sense). He is very in touch with cultural trends and that's why Whitesnake's music reflects its time period so appropriately and uniquely. Coverdale understands what works and what doesn't. In many interviews, he talks about whatever band members are a part of Whitesnake at that time. This isn't the story of a bunch of teenagers that loved to rock and got together to have fun. Rather, Coverdale approaches his music very seriously. If he's not feeling the energy of the current band or some members simply can't dedicate enough time to recordings, then he will make the appropriate alterations on the spot. Coverdale makes very economically sound decisions when arranging the band (with the help of a revolving door of band members), but is always certain to put the music first before anything.
While the music may have changed, the message never did. Almost every one of Whitesnake's songs, if not entirely a love song, contained some element of love. Coverdale, being the head songwriter, claimed that writing love songs always just came naturally to him. Also, everyone loves a good love song, so why fight success? The success I'm referring to is the success they've had over the course of their career with the power love ballads. Songs like "Is This Love", and "Here I Go Again" are the love songs that have secured Whitesnake a place in rock and roll history. While glam rockers/hair metal artists generally wrote overtly sexual and juvenile lyrics, Coverdale made the wise decision to act his age and write lyrics that reflected his maturity as an artist and as a man. Even the Whitesnake anthem, "Still of the Night", which is by no means a love ballad ('power' or any other kind of ballad) is met with a breakdown that simulates two lovers in the midst of foreplay. The entire song itself actually is an astonishingly accurate and emblematic representation of an actual sexual experience. What I'm most interested in is how much creative control Whitesnake had throughout their career. Was their primary concern always to be commercially successful; and if not, when did that dream change?
So, in 1984, Whitesnake releases the album, Slide it In. While met with popularity in England and general success in the US (the album went gold), the band realized it needed to expand. If Whitesnake wanted to make a splash and capture the attention of the American listeners, Coverdale would have to make a very important decision about the direction of his band. The result of this ultimatum led to the massively successful album, Whitesnake (1987) which technically went platinum 8 times by selling just more than 8 million copies. The album was so successful that it even boosted the sales of Slide It In to the point where it went double platinum. Their following album, Slip of The Tongue (1989), which took the concept of experimenting with glam rock even further also went platinum.
In the early stages of writing songs for the album, Whitesnake, Coverdale met in France with his lead guitarist and bassist to work on arrangements. Shortly after, David moved down to Los Angeles where they would start plans to produce and record the album. It must have been in this time that Coverdale started to realize the changes of the rock industry. Los Angeles was the birthplace of glam rock in the United States and the homes the genre's pioneers and heroes. Being in this environment definitely played a part in Coverdale's decision to shift the band's sound and give it more of that American-produced glam rock style. Another contributing factor was David Coverdale's friend, Bob Rock. Bob Rock has produced albums from such bands as Bon Jovi, Metallica, and Motley Crue. Needless to say, Rock was more than equipped to produce glam rock sound. Coverdale brought on Rock to engineer and produce the Whitesnake album because he believed that it would give the guitars the very specific sound he was looking for. Through collaboration with Rock, a new Whitesnake sound was realized and the album was made. Conversely, after the album's production, Coverdale fired his band and brought a whole new line up of musicians. The musicians that Coverdale brought on board were, prior to enlisting in Whitesnake, respectively associated with famous acts and artists such as Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, and coincidentally enough, Quiet Riot.
So, the album was released and Whitesnake had reached international fame that came with ranking number 2 on Billboard Top 200 charts. This album was especially unique, because while the songs were recorded with the premier technology of the time and the production values practiced by American glam rock bands, the songs had been written earlier without these advances in mind. So, the reason Whitesnake's 1987 platinum album was so unique, was because it sounded just like the popular music of the time, but was able to bring something else to the table. One might say that the album, Whitesnake is the most innovative album that the band has produced. The guitar riffs convey that same bluesy feeling that made the listeners fall in love with the band on the album Slide It In, but the sound of it is so hi-fi and the keyboards give it such a modern sound which just brings the energy levels to a figurative 11. A big reason that Whitesnake isn't always lumped in with the rest of the glam rock bands of the 80s is because the music is simply different. They're a rock band like other groups, but their music isn't just simply based off of power chords and melodically chanted choruses. The songs adhere to a much more complex structure which is another reason you probably won't hear someone comparing "Still Of The Night" by Whitesnake with a song like "Talk Dirty To Me" by Poison. Both songs are considered mega-hits and were both commercially very successful, but the difference between a 5 minute long musical odyssey comprised of segments that contain head-banging guitar riffs and segments where the guitar is simply hidden in the fog of the keyboard pads to allow the intimate vocal styling of David Coverdale and a song whose success is dependent on the blasting of 2 [power]-chord progressions can be looked at as the difference between night and day.
However, after realizing the power of glam rock's sound in the context of commercial success, Coverdale officially states losing sight of Whitesnake's original sound with the release of "Slip Of The Tongue". The music was a bit dumbed down and became more noise than what dedicated Whitesnake fans were used to. Even the messages of the songs seemed to have changed with this turn in style. Songs from the album like "Cheap an' Nasty", "Kittens Got Claws", and even the title track, "Slip Of The Tongue" provided more of a sexual message that was popular with the kids. Whitesnake's music had always primarily been listened to and interpreted in a very sexual context (Coverdale's sexual grunts and 'ooh baby's' made sure of that), but the lyrics had lost a lot of their subtlety. Whether it was influence from the studio or Coverdale's own personal desire to cash in on the glam rock craze that was sweeping the nation, the band's transformation in that 5 years (1984-1989) with those 3 albums (Slide It In, Whitesnake, Slip of The Tongue) was a transformation in genre, style, and tone unlike any band of their time.
To better understand Whitesnake's transformation, listen closely to the aforementioned album, Whitesnake (sometimes called 1987) in context to what was happening in the U.S. As we know, glam rock (or hair metal) was sweeping the nation. The album resulted in something the likes of which had never been realized by any other band: lightning in a bottle. Because glam rock was still relatively new, Coverdale was unfamiliar with how to write specifically for the genre. So when Whitesnake's 70s based guitar-driven riffs were put into conversation with the technology of the screeching 80s (throw in the classically soulful and sexual vocals of Sir Coverdale), and Whitesnake had become even more original and unique than they probably intended. T.S. Eliit writes in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, "We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed" (T.S. Eliot, #). Coverdale, now playing the role of an artist from a past generation, has been placed in a unique position. While he himself is older than all the glam rockers that are getting famous in Hollywood, he has managed to maintain a prevalent and lucrative career as a musician, so he can take the influences of yesterday's artists and apply them to this new era of music. Whitesnake's concept for their 1987 album could have been interpreted as an obsolete and desperate cry for commercial attention in a changing world, but thanks to the ingenuity of the band and the flare they all carry as musicians, Whitesnake used the tools available to both stay true to their sound and also go multi-platinum. They accomplished what only a handful of artists have been able to accomplish in the history of music: they managed to flourish commercially while making artistic strides to boot. Whether or not this was a fluke is completely speculative, but perhaps Coverdale was in a similar mindset as Eliot when he wrote, from the same essay, "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead" (T.S. Eliot, #).
I do not believe that there is one sole cause for Whitesnake's transformation (artistic reasons, commercial inventive, etc.), but it's impossible not to accredit the band's progress and success to one of the most dynamic and timeless front men of all time, David Coverdale, who never lost the creative drive to keep creating music.
Eliot, T. S. Tradition and the Individual Talent. Essay. McGraw-Hill Companies.
"Heavy Metal Addiction." Heavy Metal Addiction. Web. 07 Mar. 2012.
Bennett, Mike. "The '80s: Was It Just Hair Metal, or Were a Few of Us Actually
Listening?: Fufkin.com: Mike Bennett: May, 2002." Fufkin.com: Great Music Then and Now. 2002. Web. 07 Mar. 2012. <http://www.fufkin.com/columns/bennett/bennett_05_02.htm>.