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 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 Beatles, Stones, 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 Controversy, Psychotic 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 tranquilizers 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.