The Sacramento hard rock band founded by Brian Wheat and Frank Hannon have a successful career that dates back to the band’s 1980s origins.

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Tesla photo by David Redfern and Redferns
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

Formed in Sacramento, Northern California in 1982 Tesla have gone on to sell 14 million albums around the world. Their melodic brand of rock has been a staple of American FM Rock radio, which is appropriate given that they are named after the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the radio but was only belated given the credit for it. The band reunited in the 21st century and they continue to tour with four of the original members.

Tesla built a solid following after the release of their 1988 debut album, Mechanical Resonance for Geffen Records. It made the album charts in both America and the UK, as did all four of their studio albums up to 1994. Their big break came in 1989 when ‘Love Song’ from the album, The Great Radio Controversy made no 10 on the Billboard chart, helping the album into the US top 20. The follow-up album, Five Man Acoustical Jam just failed to crack the top 10 album chart, but a single, ‘Signs’, from this live set made No.8 on the singles chart. Both Psychotic Supper in 1991 and 1994’s Bust A Nut made the Top 20 of the American album chart.

Although Tesla emerged during the glory days of hair metal, the band’s music was equally indebted to contemporary blues and ’70s-style hard rock, a fusion that helped differentiate albums like The Great Radio Controversy from its contemporaries. Despite the refreshing lack of posturing, Tesla was hit just as hard as the rest of the pop-metal world when grunge arrived in the early 1990s. They did produce one of the era’s more respectable bodies of work, however, including three consecutive platinum-selling albums.

Although Tesla took shape in 1985 in Sacramento, CA, the musicians (vocalist Jeff Keith, the underrated guitar tandem of Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta) had logged several years together under the name City Kidd. At their management’s suggestion, the bandmates renamed their group after the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the radio but was given only belated credit for doing so. After playing several showcases in Los Angeles, Tesla quickly scored a deal with Geffen and released the debut album Mechanical Resonance in 1986. It produced a minor hard rock hit in “Modern Day Cowboy,” reached the Top 40 on the album charts, and eventually went platinum. However, it was the 1989 follow-up effort, The Great Radio Controversy, that truly broke the band. The first single, “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out),” was another hit with hard rock audiences and set the stage for the second single, a warm, comforting ballad named “Love Song” that substituted a dash of hippie utopianism for the usual power ballad histrionics. “Love Song” hit the pop Top Ten and pushed The Great Radio Controversy into the Top 20. Double-platinum sales figures followed as another single, “The Way It Is,” also enjoyed some degree of airplay.

In keeping with their unpretentious, blue-collar roots, Tesla responded to stardom not by aping the glam theatrics of their tourmates, but by stripping things down. The idea behind the 1990s Five Man Acoustical Jam was virtually unheard of — a pop-metal band playing loose, informal acoustic versions of their best-known songs in concert, plus a few favourite covers (’60s classics by the BeatlesStones, CCR, and others). Fortunately, Tesla’s music was sturdy enough to hold up when its roots were exposed, and one of the covers — “Signs,” an idealistic bit of hippie outrage by the Five Man Electrical Band — became another Top Ten hit, as well as the band’s highest-charting single. Not only did Five Man Acoustical Jam reach the Top 20 and go platinum, but it also helped directly inspire MTV’s Unplugged series, both with its relaxed vibe and its reminder that acoustic music could sound vital and energetic.

The studio follow-up to The Great Radio ControversyPsychotic Supper, arrived in 1991 and quickly became another platinum hit. It didn’t produce any singles quite as successful as “Love Song” or “Signs,” but it did spin off the greatest number of singles of any Tesla album: “Edison’s Medicine,” “Call It What You Want,” “What You Give,” and “Song and Emotion.” Perhaps that was partly due to Tesla’s workmanlike hard rock, which didn’t sound ridiculous if it was played on rock radio alongside the new crop of Seattle bands. The winds of change were blowing, however, and by the time Tesla returned with their 1994 follow-up, Bust A Nut, few bands from the pop-metal era had maintained their popularity. Bust A Nut did sell over 800,000 copies — an extremely respectable showing given the musical climate of 1994, and a testament to the fan base Tesla had managed to cultivate over the years. Yet all was not well within the band, and Tommy Skeoch’s addiction to tranquillizers resulted in his dismissal from the band in 1995.

Tesla attempted to forge ahead as a quartet, but the chemistry had been irreparably altered by Skeoch’s exit, and they broke up in 1996. Most of the bandmembers began playing with smaller outfits, none of which moved beyond a local level. When Skeoch’s health improved, however, the band staged a small-scale reunion in 2000, which quickly became a full-fledged effort. In the fall of 2001, the group released a two-disc live album, Replugged Live, which documented their reunion tour. Into The Now, which was co-produced by Michael Rosen (Testament, AFI), appeared in March 2004. A collection of ’70s covers called Real To Reel arrived in 2007, by which time Skeoch had left the band once more and been replaced by Dave Rude. 2008 found the revised band releasing its seventh studio album, Forever More, an all-new collection of songs that saw the musicians reuniting with producer Terry Thomas, who had previously helmed 1994’s Bust A Nut.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Nikki swarthout

    July 12, 2021 at 8:00 pm

    Would love to see you guys perform more than any other group that is scheduled for monsters on the mountain event in October. I can’t afford the ticket needed. Wishful thinking.. Trying to find a sweepstakes/ giveaway. Hoping to find and hopefully win. Love you guys

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