HARD ROCK HEAVEN Badlands

A reappraisal of the doomed late-‘80s L.A. combo, who were more
blues/Led Zep-based than their Sunset Strip hair-metal contemporaries
.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

From the rather
largish ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ file
comes one of the great lost bands of rock ‘n’ roll, Badlands.
Emerging from the 1980s nerf-metal scene, Badlands would be overshadowed first
by the enormous success of contemporaries Guns N’ Roses, a/k/a the luckiest
bunch of Hollyrockin’ droogs on the planet at the time, and then totally
eclipsed by the grunge leviathan that steamrolled its way outta Seattle in
1991.

 

Badlands’
lack of success remains a mystery almost two decades after the band’s
acrimonious break-up. The individual band members had the gutter-dwelling street
rat look affected by Sunset Strip rockers like Motley Crue or the GN’R gang,
lean and wiry with long hair and heroin chic. Badlands had an undeniable musical
pedigree as well, guitarist Jake E. Lee making his bones as part of Ozzy Osbourne’s
post-Randy Rhodes band, vocalist Ray Gillen fresh off an ill-fated short stint
with Black Sabbath. Future Kiss beat-blaster Eric Singer was another Sabbath alumnus,
while Badlands bassist Greg Chaisson had clocked in with Ron Keel in Steeler.

 

Whether it
was due to their lack of flamboyance when compared to even such notable second-and-third-tier
glam-metal hellraisers as Love/Hate or Faster Pussycat, or because their
blues-tinged hard rock sound drew more from Led Zeppelin than Hanoi Rocks, the
guys in Badlands received little love from the City of Angels and, thus, were
forever unable to break out of the L.A. rock ghetto. ‘Tis a shame, too, ’cause Badlands
had found a strong creative team in Gillen and Lee, who had developed an uneasy
songwriting relationship akin to Jagger and Richards, while the band’s talents
and electric chemistry allowed them to light up a stage wherever they toured. Badlands would manage to release just two great rock ‘n’
roll albums before burning out and breaking apart – their 1989 self-titled
debut, and 1991’s equally excellent Voodoo Highway.
 

 

Out-of-print
almost from the date of its release, Badlands the album has long been ignored by U.S. archival labels trying to mine
gold from the major label archives, resulting in a seller’s market charging
collectors $50 or more for a first-gen CD copy. Originally released by Atlantic
Records’ Titanium imprint, Badlands has finally been reissued on CD by England’s Rock Candy Records (www.rockcandyrecords.com),

the new
release featuring remastered audio, a pretty cool bonus track on top of the ten
original barn-burners, and a sixteen-page CD booklet with lengthy liner notes
and a bunch of rare, unpublished band photos…undeniably a deluxe package that
will have the band’s international fan base foaming at the mouth.

 

As for the
music? If you’re unfamiliar with Badlands, don’t cue up the CD expecting
something along the lines of the Crue or Poison, or even Ozzy’s bat-munching,
1980s-era Goth-metal Sturm und Drang. Nosirree, Badlands were unabashed Led
Zeppelin acolytes, with maybe a dash of the Jeff Beck Group on the side of
their plate, but definitely a boozy, blues-rock based gang o’ houserockers.
“High Wire” jumpstarts the album with a blast of white light/white
heat, Gillen’s voice teetering on the edge of the abyss as Lee’s guitar
slices-and-dices like some mutant six-string vegomatic. The rhythm section of
Chaisson and Singer crashes with the best of ’em, delivering a blustery backbeat
for the soaring vocals and guitar pyrotechnics. Call it Zeppelin mark II if you
will, ’cause this is where the boys from Britain may have gone musically if not
for Bonzo’s unfortunate demise.

 

Badlands continues to singe your
synapses with an unrelenting mix of mid-and-rapid-tempo firestarters that
refuse to fall into flaccid power-ballad tropes. The label-dictated single
“Dreams In The Dark” survived executive manhandling to become the
band’s calling card, garnering valuable MTV exposure (yeah, back when they used
to play actual music videos) and
inching into the Billboard Top 40.
The song itself is a pleasant enough lil’ rocker with Gillen’s voice sounding
like Johnny Van Zandt on a wistful tale of romance and lust that could pass for
a Southern rock number from a decade earlier if not for Lee’s metallic riffing
and the explosive rhythms behind Gillen’s vocals. The instrumental “Jade’s
Song” displays some of Lee’s underrated fretwork, with dexterous
acoustic-guitar strum serving as an extended intro to the deceptively benign
“Winter’s Call.” The closest thing the album has to a ballad,
“Winter’s Call” starts out all gentle and sensitive and such before
imploding like a deteriorating black star into another Zeppelin-esque pleasure
wail of screaming vocals and guitars and TNT drumbeats.

 

The
foreboding “Streets Cry Freedom” is drenched in dark malevolence,
Lee’s mesmerizing guitar lines matched by Gillen’s muted vocals until the whole
thing blows up in your face with a sonic howl colder and more powerful than any
arctic wind. Gillen reaches Plant-like heights with a tortured and nuanced
vocal performance delivered above sheer instrumental chaos. The band reaches
for its inner Blackfoot with the bluesy, blustery “Rumblin’ Train,”
which sports a fine set of Cajun-fried lyrics, a stomping rhythm, and Lee’s
best swamp-blues guitarwork. “Devil’s Stomp” offers up another
understated intro that is randomly punctuated with sledgehammer blows of bass
drum or wide slashes of wiry guitar. Lee’s fretwork here is simply unbelievable,
a pissed-off serpent that blindly strikes at anything within range while
Gillen’s black cat moan rides high above the fracas. A bonus track tacked on to
the back end of this Badlands reissue, “Ball & Chain,” is a rollicking blues-rock fever dream
with a maddening recurring riff and enough cacophonic, cascading rhythms to
make the most jaded of us wet our diapers in glee.

 

Reading
through the liner notes in the deluxe sixteen-page booklet that accompanies
this reissue, it’s amazing that the album was ever made in the first place.
Label executives imagined a far different band than that which they signed, and
kept trying to force them into the mold of washed-up hair-metal hacks rather
than the young soul rebels they obviously were. The producer caused a split
between the band’s leads (Gillen and Lee) and the rhythm section, and at one
point some damn fool suit wanted to toss Lee from the band that he started up in the first place.

 

Through
all the madness and the tension, a classic album was created, however, and Badlands stands today as a pinnacle of
the hard rock heights that were first explored by the Yardbirds, mapped by Eric
Clapton and Cream, and explored by Zeppelin, Mountain, and other fellow
travelers during the 1970s. Tossing aside the mindless hedonism and cretin
worldview of other Hollywood
street rats, and refusing to be bound by trends
and expectations, Badlands aspired to more,
and for a brief shining moment at the end of the 1980s, they achieved rock ‘n’
roll nirvana.

 

***

 

If their
self-titled 1989 album had proven to be a difficult birth, with Badlands’
manager usurping the producer’s chair, and with Atlantic Records A&R
“whiz” Jason Flom demanding a more commercial-sounding (i.e. trendy)
sound from the band, Voodoo Highway would, in the end, be the band’s undoing. (As with its predecessor, the record
has recently been reissued by the Rock Candy label.)

 

After
touring for the better part of a year in the wake of Badlands, long-simmering
tensions within the band would boil over at the end of the road. Singer Ray
Gillen and guitarist Jake Lee were determined to eject drummer Eric Singer from
the fold, with only bassist Greg Chaisson speaking on Singer’s behalf…a strange
turn of events as Singer and Chaisson had been at odds from day one. Badlands
found a new drummer in Jeff Martin, who had fronted L.A. speed-metal outfit Racer’s X as their
vocalist. Other changes were afoot, as the band kicked manager/producer Paul
O’Neil to the curb, Lee taking over the controls for the production of Voodoo Highway.

 

With Lee
at the helm, recording for Voodoo Highway started out better than the debut album, but would soon be undermined when
Gillen went behind his bandmates’ backs to tattle to Flom that the band had
more commercially-oriented songs that they were neglecting to record. It made
for an uneasy vibe in the studio, production was eventually halted and then
re-started, and by the time that Voodoo Highway actually hit the streets in 1991, Atlantic Records had officially washed its
hands of the band.

 

‘Twas a
shame, really, ’cause the label may have been able to bank a little dinero had
they shown the slightest interest in the success of Voodoo Highway.
The band’s overt musical worship of Led Zeppelin was tempered in favor of a
more streamlined metal-edged sound with just a bit of Southern-fried twang and
a little good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll funkiness.  Gillen’s voice still soars menacingly like a
hungry bird of prey, and the new rhythm section of Chaisson and Martin meshed
nicely into a solid foundation that, while not as bombastic as Singer’s eardrum
assault, had enough big-beat bluster to shame any hard rock pretenders. As for
Lee’s guitar, the man remains one of the most underrated of guitar heroes, Voodoo
Highway
displaying a wide range of the man’s
talents.

 

Kicking
off with chiming guitars and a swelling tsunami of rhythm, Gillen’s
leather-lunged wail opens “The Last Time” with a spark, the song’s
lyrics referencing, in passing, the Temptations/Rare Earth Motown gem “(I
Know) I’m Losing You” in building an emotionally-draining performance.
Gillen’s tortured vox are complimented by Lee’s raging fretwork, Badlands sounding more like a bluesy Guns N’ Roses than a
Zeppelin clone. Things quiet down somewhat for “Show Me The Way,” the
acoustic-strum intro leading into a muscular mid-tempo rocker with Gillen back
into Robert Plant mode while Lee fills in around the edges of the bass/drums
stomp with shards of razor-edged guitar.

 

The Mississippi funk of
“Whiskey Dust” takes the band to its stripped-down, swamp-blues roots
with a swaggering vocal performance by Gillen, an amped-up riff copped straight
from Tony Joe White’s “Poke Salad Annie” – perhaps the best since
Jason & the Scorchers mangled the song a half-decade earlier. Lee’s chicken-pickin’
is the greasiest you’ll hear outside of the Delta, each note lovingly covered
in blood and mud. The instrumental “Joe’s Blues” is a showcase for
Lee’s nimble-fingered fretwork, a lively country-blues number that is
immediately steamrollered by the metal mastodon that is “Soul
Stealer.”

 

With a
powerful vocal performance that cleverly blends Plant and Jim Morrison for a
little grimy transcendence, “Soul Stealer” is the kind of
evolved-in-a-straight-line-from-Zeppelin number that the Cult, Kingdom Come, or
a dozen other clones would have liked to record. Lee’s guitar shakes and
rattles like a wild boar stuck with a hunter’s arrows, while the rhythm section
hits harder than a B-52 on a bombing run, the song’s blues roots all but
obliterated under an explosive rock ‘n’ roll sunburst.

 

A loud,
taut guitar riff blasts the dust from your eardrums before Gillen’s blustery
vocals kick in on “Love Don’t Mean A Thing,” the song displaying a
little o’ that whiteboy foot shuffle that everybody from Humble Pie and Jo Jo
Gunne to even GN’R had tried to perfect with varying success. Lee’s riffing
here is monster, blasting out of your speakers like that hungry alien
facesucker leaping like a fiend from its host belly to attach itself to
Sigourney Weaver’s goodies. The title track lives up to its top-o-the-line
billing with a dark-hued blues romp firmly rooted like cypress in some Louisiana swamp,
Gillen’s slinky vocals assisted by Lee’s slithering Dobro pull.

 

Voodoo Highway contains the only cover song of Badlands’ two albums, a spirited take of James Taylor’s
“Fire And Rain.” While Gillen’s voice lacks the warm sensitivity of Taylor’s, he does a fine
job of connecting with the material, bringing a little rock ‘n’ roll energy to
the lyrics while the band’s high-octane arrangement builds upon the original
with emotional fretwork and a loose-knit rhythm track. Lee, again, brings out
the best in the song with a nervy solo that cuts to the quick. This performance
is echoed again in the album-closing “In A Dream,” an R&B-tinged
ballad with gospel undertones, Gillen’s soulful vocals carrying the song until
Lee’s subtle, high-lonesome guitar strum kicks in and underscores the emotion
of the lyrics.

 

Like
Icarus soaring too close to the sun, Badlands’
defiant approach to their music would fly in the face of contemporary trends
and eventually unravel the band’s delicate chemistry. By the time that Voodoo
Highway
was released in 1991, the juggernaut
that was grunge would dominate the charts. While Badlands’
rootsy blues-metal would have creatively fit in perfectly between Pearl Jam’s
arena-rock dreams and Nirvana’s complex punk-metal hybrid, label indifference
and eventual hostility would put the band on the street within a year.

 

Ray Gillen
would be sacked, then re-hired for an ill-fated U.K. tour when the band was
unable to find a suitable replacement…in the end, Gillen was as essential to
the Badlands’ sound as guitarist Lee, and after recording a slate of demos for
a possible Sony deal in late 1991, the band would break up permanently when
Gillen seemingly sabotaged the deal by refusing a label-mandated physical exam.
Gillen would be gone for good after dying of AIDS-related illness in December
1993.

 

Another
casualty of label hijinx and the demanding rock star lifestyle, Badlands had its shot at the brass ring, only to see the
rug pulled out from beneath them time after time. Between band in-fighting,
creative tensions, and unrealistic label expectations, Badlands
was doomed from day one…and still, they managed to deliver two classic albums
of influential hard rock and blues-metal, all of the band’s artistic battles
and macho turf-fighting resulting in a rare and unique musical chemistry. With
the long overdue re-release of both Badlands and Voodoo Highway, Badlands’
often-overlooked musical legacy is ripe for rediscovery. 

 

 

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