Coming off the wildly successful and career-defining album Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi was one of the biggest bands in hard rock in the late 80s. With a trio of Top 10 hits powered by relatable lyrics and big riffs, the band leaped from being a fairly unknown band from New Jersey to international rock stars.
Even so, Bon Jovi believed that they were being underestimated by critics who said they’d fall by the wayside just as quickly as they shot to fame. When they hunkered down in Vancouver immediately after the Slippery When Wet tour finished, Bon Jovi was motivated to put together a collection that pushed them forward, and to prove to their critics that they were no one-album wonders.
Underestimated by critics
During these sessions, the band again teamed up with Slippery When Wet producer Bruce Fairbairn and songwriter Desmond Child. Initially titling the new album Son Of Beaches before settling on New Jersey, the band worked on 17 songs before whittling them down to the final 12. Outside of a short interlude (the lo-fi “Ride Cowboy Ride”), every song was over four minutes, which wouldn’t seem to help the band’s cause in radio; yet the medium embraced New Jersey and supported what would become some of the band’s biggest songs when it was released on September 19, 1988.
The one-two punch of album openers “Lay Your Hands on Me” and “Bad Medicine” set the tone for New Jersey’s big sound. The former song was a mission of intent: a nearly six-minute slow-burner that kicked into a frenzy while paving the way for Bon Jovi’s bolder direction. The all-out arena rock stomper wasn’t like “Let It Rock” or “You Give Love A Bad Name,” even if it boasted singer Jon Bon Jovi’s trademark “whoa-whoa”s.
Creating new anthems
The album’s first single, the infectious “Bad Medicine,” shot to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Led by David Bryan’s rollicking keyboards, this five-minute adrenaline rush of a song was as a catchy as “Livin’ On A Prayer” – maybe even more so; it remains one of the band’s biggest songs and is a staple in their live shows.
While “Bad Medicine” is debatably New Jersey’s biggest moment, the album also proved that Bon Jovi was able to seamlessly write different types of radio anthems. Power ballads were a big reason for hair metal’s popularity, and with “I’ll Be There For You” the band proved that big chords, sensitive vocals about a relationship, and the “Five words I swear to you” could be the right formula for a No.1 hit. The album featured other ballads, in particular, “Living In Sin,” “Wild Is The Wind” and “Stick To Your Guns,” but “I’ll Be There For You” was lighter-in-the-air anthem that had crossover appeal.
A triumphant return
Throughout the record, Richie Sambora’s buzzsaw shredding on lead guitar (and soaring backing vocals) and Tico Torres’ pummeling drumming freed Bon Jovi’s high-octave tenor to fly. Until the 21st Century, this was the formula of what made Bon Jovi, well, Bon Jovi. Other rockers, such as “Blood On Blood” and the bluesy “Homebound Train,” expounded on New Jersey’s rocking edge and were worthy supporting tracks that preserved the album’s DNA.
Affirming their status as global stars, New Jersey was a triumphant return. The album hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 charts in its second week and remained there for four consecutive weeks. It also went to No.1 in five other countries.
Not too long after the album’s release, Bon Jovi – and music as a whole – went in a different direction. Four years passed between New Jersey and Keep The Faith, which saw the band become more pointedly hard rock. During the time between records, Jon Bon Jovi showcased his songwriting prowess, specifically on ‘Blaze Of Glory’ from the Young Guns II soundtrack, as did Richie Sambora on his debut solo album, Stranger In This Town.
However, the album didn’t so much mark hair metal’s peak as it signaled the beginning of its end. As a result, New Jersey often gets overlooked as one of the rock albums that defined the 80s.
In terms of Bon Jovi’s collective growth, New Jersey was a statement of bold intent by a band of outsiders who suddenly became the establishment. The album served as the perfect flag-planting, proving to be another big, loud step on the band’s march towards their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction.