Hey, ya'll out thar listenin'? Good, cos we've got the star-spangled banter on the newest supergroup Stateside for ya! We're talkin' melodic and pomp rockers gettin' it together with a 'legendary wild man' and totally unknown former rabbit painting drummer! We're talkin' about them high-steppin', flag wavin' crazies DAMN YANKEES of course! DAVE REYNOLDS gets the gen from ex-Styx man, guitarist/vocalist TOMMY SHAW
Take the bassist/vocalist from a once-popular American melodic hard rock act, team him up with a guitarist/vocalist who used to be part of one of the US' biggest pomp rock bands before he went solo, then add a drummer whose talents have been unheard of outside of Cleveland, Ohio - until now.
Finally, for the icing on the cake, bring in a legendary wild man to add a certain sting. Now all you've got to do is give this frantic four piece a suitable handle the kids will remember.
Howzabout Damn Yankees?
The debut, self-titled Damn Yankees album hit the UK stores last month, and it's immediately becoming a hot item. And why shouldn't it be? I doubt whether a recent five-'K' review penned by yours truly had anything to do with it - more the actual personnel invoiced here!
The perpetrators are bassist/vocalist Jack Blades (ex-Rubicon and Night Ranger), guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw (formerly of Styx with three solo albums to his credit since that band called it a day in 1984), drummer Michael Cartellone (the 'unknown' quantity and secret weapon)…and last but by no means least guitarist/vocalist/live Gonzo Ted Nugent (who needs no introduction at all!).
On the line from his home in New York Tommy Shaw tells me that he's amazed at the reaction to the album so far, modestly believing that the four-piece would take "a long time to get approval". He goes on to explain just how such a strong musical force came to be.
"Well, it's something Ted and I had been talking about whenever we'd see each other in the last couple of years. We figured that we were following the same musical paths and had always admired each other's playing, so we finally decided we'd get together after we'd recorded our last albums."
In Shaw's case this was the Terry Thomas-produced 'Ambition' and in Nugent's the rather underrated 'If You Can't Lick 'Em… Lick 'em.'
"We started putting some material together," continues Tommy, warming to the subject like a kid showing off his new toy, "and we then heard that Night Ranger had broken up and decided to call Jack up to see if he was interested in working with us.
"As for the drummer, well, we hadn't really thought about that at the time. Michael was already playing in my band at the time, as he'd joined me just before I went out opening for Rush in the United States. He's a killer drummer. I guess he was in the right place at the right time for this because once Ted and Jack heard him he was in.
"I know that he's a real unknown but he won't be unknown for long! He's originally from Cleveland and he'd been in tons of local bands before he decided to move to New York. He was actually just working downtown painting rabbits on furniture when he came to audition for me a couple of years ago, and he just totally destroyed the kit we had! He made a good impression!"
Did you decide to form Damn Yankees because you were unhappy as a solo artist?
"Sort of. I guess I never really lost my love of being in a band, even though I couldn't wait to get out of Styx. I didn't like being the sole frontman with everybody looking towards me. I like singing and playing lead but I do feel more secure looking at my left or right to two other guys who can do the same thing. It's funny that I did hit my stride with my last record, 'Ambition', and it was a great experience working with Terry Thomas, but I really did miss being in a band situation."
The line-up of Damn Yankees has come as a bit of a surprise to a great many people, like how could someone like Ted Nugent work with Tommy Shaw or Jack Blades, both of whom have traveled a more melodic path in the past. But the album has proved it can be done…
"Definitely! I feel the magic of it is the chemistry involved. If you put three people together who are exactly alike the chemistry won't happen. We're all different, especially me 'n' Ted. And that's what made the album.
"For instance one of the first songs Ted and I wrote together was 'Come Again' and it begins with an acoustic guitar part. Now Ted hates acoustic guitar so we got him to play that part and I played the part he'd normally play. But it wasn't uncomfortable situation like it tended to be between me and Dennis De Young in Styx. Having said that though, me and Dennis had great chemistry between us too."
You've got to admit though that the record does tend to veer more towards a Night Ranger/Tommy Shaw style than all-out 'Wango Tango' rock. Did you and Jack tend to have the final word?
"No. Jack and I are what's known as the Neverleave brothers. We tended to stay in the studio all hours, whereas Ted loves being outside - he has a real hard time sitting still and being cooped up in a studio. So whilst Jack and I would deal with all the nuts and bolts Ted would come in and give it that certain edge.
"He kept things from sounding too pretty. He was the security on the musical side of it. Whenever Jack and I would start getting a little too introspective Ted would come in, turn on the lights and say 'Excuse me…what's goin' on here?'"
Nugent's involvement may seem minimal without looking too closely, but upon inspection all is not what it at first seems.
"Oh Ted's all over the place on the album!" confirms Tommy with a laugh. "In actual fact it was Ted's idea to put 'High Enough' (a huge power ballad delivered in true Night Ranger style) on the record! See, Jack and I had come up with the rough framework of the song with the intention of writing it for another act.
"Ted came in one day and heard us playing it and we actually stopped when he walked through the door because he'd probably turn up his nose! But he heard it and suggested we use it incorporating some of his ideas, like the big power chords. See, some people forget that when Ted was in the Amboy Dukes he was doing a lot of songs with plenty of harmonies."
Why does he only get one song to sing lead on? (The immense 'Pile Driver', a typical Nugent rocker.)
"Simply because he's enjoying his role of being the lead guitar player in this band. Ted will be doing some of his own stuff, like 'Cat Scratch Fever', in the live set though.
" 'Pile Driver' was a great track to record," Tommy adds, "glasses were broken, bodily functions were happening…"
Yeah, I get the picture!
"From a purely personal point of view this band is helping me to achieve everything I wanted to. I simply wanted to be in a really good rock band and one that will go out on tour.
"To be honest we really didn't think we would get signed… (Warner Brothers beat out Geffen for their signatures in the finish up) …because we weren't prepared to compromise on anything because we were doing what we liked to do. If we hadn't have been able to do this for a living, then we would've just got together in our spare time to jam.
"And another thing is that this isn't a big corporate thing. We vowed never to record or perform a song we didn't like and the songs on the album are there by our own choosing. Another thing is the lawyers were kept well out of things, the four of us just agreed on things and shook hands on it all. There's no legal bullshit."
With Ted contributing lead vocals to just the one track, the others are split 50/50 between Tommy and Jack. And where 'Runaway' sounds like something from Shaw's last solo album, 'Come Again' is actually very reminiscent of Styx, particularly a song like 'Man In The Wilderness' that Shaw sang on the band's 'Grand Illusion' album.
"I think it probably reminds you of that because it's me singing with a 12 string guitar! I think Styx only ever played 'Man In The Wilderness' live once, perhaps never. I can't really remember.
"I do know that I used to love those songs. In the '70s we used to be a killer rock band, but as soon as we had a hit with 'Babe' and the ballads took all the focus then that wa really the end. It was akin to death by chocolate!"
Were you asked to take part in the reformation of the band that's happening now with Glen Burtnick taking your place in the line-up?
"Yes, I was asked. I've known about the reformation for a while. Dennis De Young and I had been talking about it for the last two years and we sort of agreed that once we both had our solo commitments finished then Styx would be on again.
"But Dennis and I were always out of synch and his last solo album took longer than he expected to complete. It was actually the day we were due to begin recording the Damn Yankees album that Dennis finally called to say everything was ready but I just had to turn him down. But I do wish them all the best and Glen was an interesting choice to make, so good luck to them."
You've already mentioned that Ted will do 'Cat Scratch Fever' in the Damn Yankees live set, so will you be doing any old Styx songs?
"Oh yeah, I'm sure I will. Jack will probably do something from Night Ranger, like 'Rock In America', whilst I'll do 'Renegade' or 'Blue Collar Man'. Ted will probably do 'Wango Tango' as well. Actually I'm trying to persuade him to do 'Babe'! Ha! Can you imagine Nugent sitting at a piano singing that?!
"I'm really looking forward to touring. I just know it's going to be great. See, it's going to be a different world for Jack and I because we've been used to doing absolute set lists in our old bands whereas now it's going to be more loose.
"That's the great thing about working with Ted. He's very quick on his feet!
"We're trying to hook up on a tour as special guests. We've already been turned down by two pretty big bands. Mind you, if I was in another band I'd hate to follow us!
"The only time I felt the heat was on us in Styx, was when Sammy Hagar opened up a couple of shows for us in Texas on the 'Kilroy' tour. For some reason, ironically enough, Ted Nugent was sitting in with him and they kicked our butts!"
Perhaps the biggest question that must be dropped Shaw's way is whether or not Damn Yankees is a one-off. Is this just a project or a real band?
"If it's just a one-off then Warner Brothers are going to be very upset! We have a long term contract with them, and Ron Nevison (who produced the album) is chomping at the bit to do the second record already.
"Oh, and you will be seeing us in the UK, in fact we want to play everywhere that has electricity, but, as Ted says, 'Let's play Cleveland first'!"