Chris Nee1 Comment


Chris Nee1 Comment

In between Christmas and New Year of 1989 Sebastian Bach was on stage in Springfield, Massachusetts, striding around in between songs and ranting about Manuel Noriega's Panama and Operation Just Cause, when a bottle was flung from the floor and struck him square on the top of the head just as he finished referring uncharitably to Noriega as "Burrito Taco". Bach lost it, hamfistedly segueing his anger into an introduction to the next song, 'Piece Of Me'.

Skid Row continued playing and Bach sang the opening lyrics, weaving them around his attempts to move innocents out of the way before launching the bottle back into the crowd in the direction of his assailant, whom he missed. The missile hit Elizabeth Myers, a teenage fan who required surgery and practically cleaned Bach out with the resulting lawsuit.

He was soon in the audience by way of a vicious feet-first jump off the edge of the stage. His bandmates continuing behind him, Bach was embroiled in a melee on the floor before being dragged back over the apron and regaining his microphone. It was the start of a long night, court proceedings against Bach and a very expensive process of litigation.

By the time I saw footage of the incident many years later on a borrowed and battered copy of Skid Row's Oh Say Can You Scream VHS I'd long since become hooked as fan of a band I'd been taught to love before I was even in short trousers, never mind out of them. In my developing mind Bach was the ultimate rockstar arsehole, larger than life, with a phenomenal voice, straightened long hair, a bad attitude and a willingness to drop-kick his own fans in the face if they crossed a line of his definition.

Skid Row's classic line-up - Bach, guitarists Dave "Snake" Sabo and Scotti Hill, bassist Rachel Bolan and drummer Rob Affuso - enjoyed a rocket-fueled rise to stardom between 1989 and 1995. Three studio albums into their career they were finished. Without Bach and stranded in a mid-1990s heavy metal wasteland it was unlikely that they'd ever be back. The truth is they never should have been.

Skid Row's self-titled debut album, produced by Michael Wagener and unleashed in 1989, was a maleficent hooligan of a record. Beneath the accessibility that took their first long-player five-times platinum in the United States, Skid Row possessed a vituperative, rebellious and spiky core that elevated them beyond even the twisted machismo of the glam metal era that was, thankfully, flaming out by 1989. It'd be pointless to pretend Skid Row didn't serve up good-time party metal but when the sinewy frame of Sebastian Bach is centre-stage spitting venom all over it it's clear there's something a little livelier going on than his hairspray loving peers were able to offer.

Snake and Bolan glued the whole thing together and the record's reputation as a seminal work has grown in the 26 years since its release. It's far from perfect - 'Can't Stand The Heartache' is as weak a pop metal track as one could hope to endure - but there are songs within it that came to mean something to more than one generation of heavy metal fans. '18 & Life', the band's second single, is a wonderful example of the gritty street-life posturing of so many great '80s metal songs. ('Switchblade Serenade' by Spread Eagle is the best of these by far, for my money.) 'I Remember You' showcases the extraordinary versatility of Bach's voice and the songwriting ability of Sabo and Bolan; it's a much loved but often overlooked power ballad.

But the crowning glory, the monstrous track that turned Skid Row into a giant of heavy metal, was their very first single. Nestling on the album between gyratory hip-twister 'Rattlesnake Shake' and the hands-in-the-air chorus of 'Here I Am' is the greatest song of Skid Row's career, an unapologetic street-level call to arms containing a fabulous excuse to have legions of kids shouting the name of the band in the middle of its biggest hit. 'Youth Gone Wild' is as coruscating as it is catchy and its claim to represent a generation of disenfranchised adolescents, a familiar trope though it was, justified itself in the sheer brilliance of the song.

Wagener was behind the desk once again for the follow-up, Slave To The Grind. It didn't quite match the commercial success of Skid Row and reviews were mixed, but the second album has stood firm against the test of time even more robustly than the first. The lyrical content might skirt a little too close to the macho-glam line in patches but the sound has become the recognisable vintage of what Skid Row were. It's thicker and heavier than Skid Row, far more aggressive, and built around the kind of killer riffs that Sabo seems from the outside to come by with relative ease.

Bolan's bass gets more of the spotlight and his writing partnership with Snake is at its very best. The first three tracks thunder out of the blocks, combining boundless sleaze with a new world view that tried to take on politics, society and life. The ludicrous end-of-party anthem 'Get The Fuck Out' concludes the first half, a half littered with hits including three of the album's five singles. But what's remarkable about Slave To The Grind is its strength down the home straight. Bullseye after bullseye after bullseye; it's a multifarious one-band hitparade inside six largely under-appreciated tracks.

Yet Slave To The Grind doesn't shy away from the customs of its contemporaries, boasting no fewer than three ballads. But they're unmistakably different to the other slower numbers of the time. Sabo celebrates to this day the fact that 'Quicksand Jesus', 'In A Darkened Room' and 'Wasted Time' are uniquely Skid Row. They're darker, somehow deeper than others, and Bach's vocal is an undeniable differentiator. In combination with the music of Sabo and Bolan, Bach conjures up an otherwordly emotional picture in the tracks. All three of them became singles with limited success.
If Slave To The Grind snuck out just before the onset of grunge, Subhuman Race was both a product of - and response to - the world it left behind. Nirvana, originally named Skid Row, were now gone, but the output of even the greatest metal acts during the first half of the 1990s was, generally, bilge. Skid Row took Pantera out on their Slave To The Grind world tour and they went on to become not only a legendary metal band but one of the few raging infernos to break through the gloom of the mid-1990s. Skid Row's own 1995 album was another departure. Subhuman Race was reviewed well but continues to divide opinion amongst a band that was falling apart - or, rather, that already had. New producer Bob Rock had one hell of a job on his hands; mind you, by 1994 he must have been used to that.

Bolan famously despises it but Subhuman Race has redeeming features. It's another step up in the overall sound, and the versatility and confidence of the songwriting seems to be clear, though accounts from the writing and recording process suggest that those in the studio might be surprised to learn that. Where Skid Row was an 1980s album squeaking into the end of its natural era, Subhuman Race is a work of its 1990s moment. It's heavy rock with a pop spin, veering off into metal only occasionally. It's easy to see why some of the older fans weren't impressed, and indeed why Bolan views it as a disappointment, but a few of the band's most mature, cleverly crafted and timely tracks are hidden within.

Throughout their career the classic Skid Row battled against a 'hair metal' label that was too readily applied. In the late 1980s Bach was a preening pretty boy, and not just boy-pretty. Bach was the very picture of androgynous sex appeal, offset by the hyper-macho attitude that had a tendency to land him in hot water. But with long blond hair and catwalk cheekbones, it was Bach's appearance - along with those one or two early tracks that did stray perilously close to hair metal territory - that saw the band labeled alongside heavy metal's glamorous, gutless, guileless dullards.

But the second and third albums steered them well clear of hair metal and made them a band that was relevant into the mid-1990s. Shaking off the hair metal label was a battle Skid Row knew they were facing at the time and one they look back upon as a triumph now. There's no doubt they were pigeon-holed for a time, and are so again in hindsight, but Pretty Boy Floyd they were not. This was a band that offered so much more - some of it positive but much of it angry, negative and unwittingly dumb and controversial -  than the voluminously coiffured idiots around them.

Their split in 1996 was inevitable if Bolan's recollections of the Subhuman Race sessions are anything to go by. The histories of some bands tell us that we should never go back; Skid Row shouldn't have gone forwards. After a hiatus much shorter in retrospect than it seemed to a fan like me at the time, they returned to action under the same name but with a brand new line-up. There was no place for Bach, drummer Affuso chose not to return and the new Skid Row immediately looked a lot different to the outfit from the turn of the 1990s. Charlie Mills came and went, and, by the time the band put out a new record, he'd been replaced by Phil Varone, a walking erection who'd previously been the drummer in Saigon Kick as well as Bolan's Prunella Scales side project. At the microphone, Texan country singer Johnny Solinger had already stepped into the spotlight and Thickskin finally hit the shelves in 2003.

Studio record number four wasn't really an adequate portent of what was to come. It's not bad; there are a number of tracks that are enjoyable and it's a very passable rock album. But 2006 effort Revolutions Per Minute, though a shade heavier than its predecessor and blessed with some tremendous chunky riffs, just lacks a bit of craft and class. Worse still, Skid Row's focus had gone askew and Solinger was given the freedom to roam around in his country element even if the twanging credibility chasm wasn't of his making alone. Revolutions Per Minute is woefully puerile in its lyrical content and 'You Lie' is a redneck dirge dire enough to make any old-fashioned Skid Row fan vomit from the very core of his being.

Most recently the band released a pair of EPs under the United World Rebellion banner. Combined they offer little more than safe, boring rock music. They expose what has become the modern Skid Row sound, namely an uninspiring nothingness briefly punctuated by some well written riffs and underpinned by the most mercilessly irritating vocals imaginable. Even as individual works Chapter One and Rise Of The Damnation Army supply precious little cohesiveness. Together they merely confirm that Skid Row, a band that used to be so much more, now turn out formulaic road music for US truckers. That might have a place in the music industry but its presence in the Skid Row pantheon is extremely unfortunate.
Compared to their original run, Skid Row had become a country-tainted pub band. Bach, incidentally, could be said to find himself in a similar situation; he's even dabbled in a bit of country music himself. Without each other Skid Row and Sebastian Bach are both a long way off what they used to be and what they could have been, though the 1990s might have ended Skid Row regardless of the band's clash of personalities.

In any case, they've already undergone a fundamental change of personnel this year. Having sacked Solinger (albeit with the usual pushed/jumped tedium so common in the event of a big ego being put out to pasture), Skid Row immediately announced his replacement. Former TNT singer Tony Harnell was confirmed as Skid Row's new frontman on the same day as Solinger's defenestration had been made public and is, theoretically at least, closer to the band's stylistic archetype. His first demo with Skid Row, a recording of '18 & Life', met with mixed reviews in April.
Sabo, Hill and Bolan have the right to be happy and play the music they want to play. Sabo in particular makes no secret of accepting that Skid Row now play to much smaller audiences in much smaller venues. It helps him connect with the fans, he says. It gives him a sense of peace and allows him a stability that contrasts with the world of Bach-era Skid Row like oil and water. The personal and professional happiness of the three Skid Row survivors is paramount and their philosophical approach to it laudable.

No fan would dispute the band's freedom to be content, satisfied in the knowledge that the band's instrumental backbone was every bit as important in the good old days as the flamboyant and controversial giant in the centre of the stage. But the final days of Solinger-era Skid Row, with Rob Hammersmith at the drum kit in place of porno polymath Varone, weren't Skid Row. The band was a husk. It was a retro revival and nothing more. The core members of the classic line-up deserve better, not least because the three of them write well - the continued creation of top-drawer riffs is evidence of this - and they could be so much more.

More importantly, the name Skid Row should've been left vacant so that it could have been looked back upon from 2015 as a thrilling and iconic moment in time, a landmark in metal history. Instead it's been dragged away from what it meant to a great many fans. And to make it even worse they put a bloody cowboy's hat on it.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast. He reviews five new records every week and you can follow him on Twitter: @ChrisNeeFC

Skid Row images via tkkate and jamiecat on Flickr.