Rock Ballads

September 17, 2012

HEAVY METAL. HARD ROCK. These are robust terms designed to strike fear and terror into the hearts of lily-livered pop fans the world over.

Say them once, and your fists will clench; say them twice, and the veins on your forehead will automatically bulge; say them three times (preferably backwards), and a demon from the darker corners of Hades will be summoned forth, pitchfork in hand.

And then of course there’s Thrash Metal, Black Metal, and – in the case of Swiss nasties, Celtic Frost – avant-garde Death Metal, sub-genres sure to spread even greater trepidation and angst…

Rock BalladsBut wait… what about the other side of this coin? Surely, the rock and metal world must have a softer, furrier underbelly, something to be tickled in front of the fire on those long winter nights?

Well - whisper it softly - the answer is yes,the savage beast of screaming metal does indeed have a good fairy to balance out the wicked witch that generally holds sway.

It's emotional, it's empowering and, if experienced in a live setting with life-partner close by, it can induce the involuntary waving of a lighter in the air - although in these techno-conscious times the lighter is now typically replaced by a mobile phone (the Nokia Soft-Rockia being the choice of the connoisseur).

It's still very much rock, but more 'big girl's blouse' than 'chainmail chemise', and it can weaken the knees of the most battle-scarred veteran of the sonic wars.

It's called the 'Power Ballad' and it can be consumed in a number of different ways: either as part of an album, where it may be strategically placed to add a cool and soothing hand to the more fevered of the tracks, or on a compilation devoted entirely to arrow-to-the-heart outings of this ilk; the ones where it's lesscajones and more corazon; where the swell of the music gives rise to the sort of dewy-eyed, lump-throated reaction rarely seen in members of the warrior race.

Of course, taking this turn down a darkened Lover's Lane isn't the wont of every band; some, such as the mighty Manowar, prefer to steer a straight path on the heavy metal highway, attempting to mow down the 'wimps and posers' referred to in their 'Metal Warriors' anthem; but as with everything to do with emotion, it's very much a case of each to their own…

Indeed, back in the 1980s, it was generally de-rigeur that every band, no matter how leather-clad or cod-pieced, would have the big ballad somewhere on their album; along with the well-chosen cover version, this was generally a way for men from the hairier / hoarier side of the tracks to pick up prime-time US radio play - a cornerstone of any record-selling campaign. Just take LA mid-eighties shock-rockers W.A.S.P. (We Are Sexual Perverts), who had the wonderful 'Sleeping (In The Fire)' on their self-titled debut album (1984), and this from a band whose frontman - the redwood-sized Blackie Lawless - had a chainsaw blade between his legs accompanied by the proclamation: 'I F**k Like A Beast'!

Rock BalladsYes, even those for whom the V D initials had nothing whatsoever to do with Valentine's Day were not afraid to (sometimes) bring out the acoustics, turn down the volume knob and usher forth on the sloppy subject of lurve. I am not aware of any statistics to prove this, but my gut feeling is that as many young rockers have been conceived to 'I'll Be There For You' or 'Bed Of Roses' by US melodic rockers Bon Jovi as anything by Barry White.

Indeed, with his tinted coiffure, movie-star looks and fine American teeth, Bon Jovi main man Jon Bon Jovi was just the guy to deliver the Power Ballad and make it stick. Here was Kerrang! magazine's first real poster boy - a musician who didn't need to be covered in blood or offal to command centre-spread status in the mag. All over the world, women had to be calmed down with medicinal cups of tea as Jon and the band went through their Power Ballad paces…

History tells us that Bon Jovi's first UK tour (1984) was supporting the legendary Kiss, a band with a comic book image and a combustible stage show; a band who - for all the fire and brimstone, explosions and excess - enjoyed their greatest chart success with a ballad. It was called 'Beth' (originally 'Beck'), and it featured on the New York group's classic 1976 album, the Bob Ezrin-produced Destroyer. As is often the case with bronto-sized hits, it started life as the B-side to another single, but soon DJs everywhere were flipping the sucker with burger-like zeal.

Rock Ballads'Beth' was written by original Kiss drummer Peter 'Catman' Criss and polished into a rare gem by studio whip-cracker Ezrin. For the live performance Criss would sit on a stool away from his kit and throw roses to the females at the front. Frankly, if Power Ballads are your pleasure, guilty or otherwise, I'm not sure it gets much better than that… unless, of course, it's pomp rock that floats your boat, in which case you'll be wanting a double-dose of US outfit Styx, with lashings of soft cheese on the side…

In a parallel universe it would be magnificent to think of Styx and The Rolling Stones hitting the road together - the hugely improbable 'Styx and Stones' tour. However, fantasy band-play aside, it should be noted for the record that when it comes to songs with Valentine's Day stamped through them, Styx are genuine heart-on-sleeve heroes.

Exhibit A: 'Babe'. Not just a perfect Power Ballad title (no, it's not about a pig!), but also a song that appears to be candyfloss coated whilst simultaneously floating in a marshmallow boat on a saccharine sea. Yes, it's THAT great! All emotive buttons are pushed, and then pushed again, even harder, as the chorus takes mighty wings and soars towards the shag-piled, sumptuously upholstered, spotlessly white surrounds of melodic hard rock heaven. All hail.

Scoring even higher marks, however, if such a thing is possible (or desirable?), is the cover of Styx song 'Come Sail Away' that appears on Chef Aid - The South Park Album (1998); it's 'sung' by Cartman, and for real and tangible feeling from an illustrated character it's very hard to beat - the 'voice' sometimes cracked, the emotion swirling like dry-ice at a Prog fest.

Rock BalladsOf course, it says much for the iconic status held by the Power Ballad that a series like South Park would choose to embrace it so magnificently; they went for Styx, but they could just as easily have gone for Aerosmith, the mighty Smiff, whose 1987 track 'Angel', from the Permanent Vacation album, is as good and poignant a Power Ballad as you're likely to hear this side of a prime-time Journey album. I first saw the band perform in the early 1980s in Portland, Oregon, a show during which frontman Steven Tyler fell from the stage then fell asleep during our interview afterwards - they don't call me 'Mr Excitement' for nothing!

Highly influential band Guns n' Roses - there's no doubt about it - the LA five-piece whose sense of swagger and deeply rock'n'roll antics placed them somewhere between Tyler and Co in their mid-seventies 'Rocks'-era pomp, and Finnish sleaze maestros, Hanoi Rocks. If you aren't aware of Guns n' Roses and especially the single 'Sweet Child O' Mine', then I can only assume you live a sheltered and blameless life; but those of us happy to run barefoot on the wild side, at least on a non-school night, will recognise Guns n' Roses (or Lines n' Noses to give them their street name) as the most important rock band of the 1980s, and 'November Rain' - from Use Your Illusion I - as a Power Ballad powered by one of the most expansive / expensive videos of the era.

Everyone deals with money and fame in different ways: some choose to behave with prudence, keeping an eye out for that rainy day, whereas others are more inclined to flaunt their fortune, giving the golden teat of life a damn good suck. Guns n' Roses were very much from the latter camp, mixing mother's milk and mother's ruin to enhance their legend and make the sort of bold visual statements more usually found on a Hollywood lot.

Rock BalladsI first heard 'November Rain' on the Tommy Vance Radio One rock show, and I was instantly impressed by its sheer wilful ambition; I can't quite recall where I came into contact with US No 1 single 'More Than Words' - ironically, an intimate, mild-mannered moment from Boston band Extreme - but the two songs couldn't be more different if they'd been conceived and recorded on different planets in different solar systems…

Yes, before vocalist Gary Cherone had hooked up (briefly) with Van Halen, and before guitarist Nuno Bettencourt was rockin' out (cough) with Rihanna, there was Extreme and their Pornograffiti album (1990) - a record loved in equal measure by musicians and fans. It was an enjoyable outing for sure, with acoustic smooch-fest 'More Than Words' the huge commercial hook - a song that, like Mr Big's 'To Be With You', ended up (sadly) becoming more annoying than inviting due to the sheer amount of attention it received.

Pound for pound it's actually a fine track, but if you live to be 100 and successfully retain most of your faculties would you seriously wish to spin it again? Without sedation? Hmmm… although, of course, in the 'please, nurse, no more' stakes, Extreme's biggest hit is a mere sapling compared to the giant and daunting sequoia that is Bryan Adams' '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' - a track that by its close association with Robin Hood instantly made the intelligent listener a staunch Sheriff of Nottingham fan… go Rickman!

In 1991, it was everywhere (16 weeks topping the UK charts, no less), and it was everywhere all the time. Like 'More Than Words', it's actually a finely-wrought piece from a songwriter with an excellent CV; check out Kiss' pounding Creatures Of The Night album (1982), and you'll find song-writing credits from Mr A (i.e. 'War Machine'), and supporters of melodic heavy music Canuck-style will not need me to remind them of the rockin' pedigree of the man's early output, especially the Cuts Like A Knife album from 1983.

Rock BalladsWhat's more, if you're in the market for a classic, highly credible piece of wine and roses Power Balladry (known as chocs and rock in the trade), then you need peer no further than 'Heaven', from the magnificent Bob Clearmountain co-produced Reckless album, probably still the Adams opus you'd be found clutching were you unfortunate enough to be preserved in a sudden all-enveloping lava flow. It's that rare beast - emotive and magnificent in equal parts, with enough power-chord action to keep the wimpiest of cherubim host securely at bay.

I actually got to hang out with Bryan back in the 1980s, as he was romantically entangled with the sister of a friend of mine, but I never got close enough to put my hand down his sleeve, something I did achieve with Deep Purple legend and Rainbow mainman, Ritchie Blackmore. It was all above board, I should point out, something to do with a photo shoot for his then Rainbow album, Bent Out Of Shape (geddit?), a 1983 release that featured the excellent Foreigner-esque Power Ballad, 'Street Of Dreams'…

Of course, by this point, Rainbow were well into the second phase of their career - a phase that actually scored pretty well in terms of the Power Ballad, with 'Stone Cold' - from 1982's Straight Between The Eyes - probably standing red rose-handed as the pick of the pack. In the early days of the band, with the late (and supremely great) Ronnie James Dio fronting the line-up, Rainbow was an altogether more dramatic and armour-plated beast, with legend and folklore informing a choice selection of songs underpinned for the most part by thundering drums and epic riffin' (real bang and wimple fare), the occasional quieter moments embroidered with misty medieval charm.

Rock BalladsFollowing the departure of Dio, however, the music shifted in a more commercial direction, with subsequent singers - the likes of Graham Bonnet and Joe Lynn Turner - happy to hold the Power Ballad torch aloft; to followers of the original Rainbow, the band's decision to go down this path never felt 100 per cent right, but you can't argue with Blackmore's skill as a songwriter plus his on-going ability to wring real emotion from his Strat. Hats off to the man in black!

For Rainbow, the Power Ballad was never truly central to their musical stance, and so it was with both Cinderella and Tesla - US bands of the mid-eighties with an authentic, bluesy stance and a degree of grit to their work. Both debut albums were real statements, the Tesla one (Mechanical Resonance, 1986) not a million miles away from the territory about to be staked out by Guns n' Roses, and the Cinderella one (Night Songs, also 1986) a mighty, if derivative, riff-fest from soup to nutz. Both albums sold well, although the success of Night Songs couldn't have been helped by a sleeve that seemed to tick every cliché known to the world of rock, and a few more besides. It was quite memorably described, perhaps by myself, as "an explosion in Danny La Rue's wardrobe", which may be why the follow-up, Long Cold Winter (1988), appeared as a plain white package; this was also the album that contained perhaps the band's premier diversion down Ballad Alley, 'Don't Know What You've Got (Till It's Gone)', with singer Tom Keifer's sandpaper rasp drawing every last drop of feeling from a song that no rocker of a certain age would be afraid to croon along to.

For Tesla, 'Love Song' - from the 1989 album, The Great Radio Controversy - saw the band picking up serious US radio play and getting across to a wider audience, many of them no doubt couples in lurve (nice). A gentle outing beefed up by a full-blooded guitar solo, 'Love Song' could only be more V-Day approved were it to come with a red bow and a ribbed condom; it's not Tesla's finest track, but fittingly for a band named after Nikola Tesla, famous for his pioneering work with electricity, it sent out sparks between courting couples and made those without a partner realise just what sad and lonely bastards they really were…

Rock BalladsAnd speaking of sparks, it's hard not to feel a tingle when 'Baby, I Love Your Way' sashays into the room; with a verse that had a clear influence on 'Africa' by Toto, plus a chorus plucked straight from the upper branches of the sacred love tree, this is the kind of song - written and performed by tousled-haired Englishman Peter Frampton - that should have a prominent place in the record collection of anyone who hasn't completely given up on romance and gone to live as a hermit on a remote Scottish isle. In other words, if your only companions are sheep, best not to go there; but if you still have a spring in your step, a rocket in your pocket and are as hungry for love as David Coverdale in a Whitesnake video, then I can highly recommend it.

Of course, the thing most people know about Peter Frampton is that he broke big through a live album, Frampton Comes Alive (1976), paving the way for a host of other artists to follow suit, and the version of 'Baby…' on said platter is even better than the studio one, I kid an' josh you not…

US rockers Hoobastank can also cite a ballad (well, a more measured outing certainly)as their most celebrated track; the song in question is 'The Reason' and the video accompanying it has now been viewed about 55 million times on YouTube! Sadly, and not so romantically, the clip shows a rather attractive young lady being mowed down by a car, but happily, it's all smiles in the end as, having risen Phoenix-like from the tarmac, she leaves on the back of a band member's bike. Unfortunately, real life doesn't always resolve itself quite so neatly, but hey, this isn't real life, it's music, and more than just music, it's Power Ballads, and in the world of the Power Ballad all things are possible… unicorns, limpid pools, reconstituted damsels - a soft focus, candlelit world where hands are held, hearts are broken and hair is forever ruffled by the soft summer breeze.

Best not to fight it. Go with the flow. Light up the love candle (and just pray no one's watching).

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