Death by Power Ballad: Extreme, “More Than Words”
Back in the fall of 1990, I served what would be my final semester as a college radio DJ, working a 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM slot at my campus’ carrier-current radio hidey-hole, spinning LPs and playing CDs and sounding pretty damned professional, if I may say so myself, compared to some of my compañeros. The earliness of the hour and the lack of broadcast range, aside from the dorms and student union, meant I was spinning for exactly two listeners—me and anyone riding with me in my car later, as I played tapes of each of my shifts.
It also meant I could play and say whatever I wanted; even though we were forbidden from swearing on the air and playing songs with swear words in them, none of the station management listened to my show, and the student union didn’t even open until I was off the air, not to mention that any passenger in my car would have known of my potty mouth. I could curse a blue streak, if so moved (though I rarely was—it was too early to get that worked up about much). Two of the three songs I played most often that semester were Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up” and Boogie Down Productions’ “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love),” with KRS-One’s refrain, “Now tell me what the fuck am I supposed to do.”
The third song I played most often was a different thing altogether. I used the show to make tapes of stuff I liked, and also to try out new music (for you kids out there—finding new stuff to listen to wasn’t always as easy as point and click. We’uns had to work hard and take chances to find the good shit). I read something that resembled a review in Rolling Stone of the Boston funk/hair/metal band Extreme’s second record, Pornograffiti. It was a single paragraph in a half-page “Wrap Up” (written by the lovely Kim Neely) that covered five records. The review singled out a song called “More than Words,” which was described as “a placid duet [that] suggests the Beatles.” Curious, I spun the song one morning, and was hooked.
How many times must you hear a song before you get sick of it? Ten? Fifty? Hundreds? By the time “More Than Words” hit Number One in June of 1991, it seemed as though you could hear it on commercial radio all day, every day; as soon as it finished on one Top Forty station, you could turn the dial to the AOR station (for you kids out there—radios used to have dials that enabled one to move from one station to another). Soon as the AOR station was done (with the five-and-a-half-minute album version, not the four-minute single edit), you could flip over to another Top Forty station, and when they were done playing it, you could head to the Adult Contemporary station. Fatigue was certain to set in, and set in it did.
But I still remember the first time I cued it up, in the station’s crappy control room, before many of my fellow collegians were even really awake. The finger-picked chords (G, Cadd9, Am7, C, D, then back to G) were simple—almost too simple for a monster shredder like Nuno Bettencourt. It was a campfire progression, something to play around with after the eightieth chorus of “Kumbayah,” when the bottle’s been emptied and the embers are fading. I remembered singer Gary Cherone from their debut album; on uptempo stuff like “Wind Me Up” and “Kid Ego,” he seemed like some mutant cross between Queen’s Freddie Mercury and KISS’ Paul Stanley. But the tender tone of his voice in “More Than Words” seemed strange, yet strangely perfect. Remember, this was a period when the power ballad was king—the term heavy metal had undergone a rapid expansion, wide enough to include everyone from Maiden and Motorhead to Bon Jovi and Poison, and a good three-quarters or more of the bands in that bracket (not Motorhead) were unplugging and getting all sensitive ‘n’ shit.
“More Than Words” didn’t fit the typical mold, though. For one thing, it was all acoustic—no wee-diddle-diddle solo or whammy bar divebombs after the second chorus. No drums, either—the tap of Bettencourt’s fingers on the pick guard provided the only percussion. It was quiet, dare I say pure—a simple, harmony-rich expression of yearning and devotion and the desire to go deeper in a relationship.
On the album version, it also had a fake ending—coming out of the final chorus, Bettencourt does a little flashy picking, punctuated with a hard-plucked harmonic, and the first time I played it on the air, I thought the song was done. Started into my stop-set, back-announcing the song, only to find myself countered by Cherone’s falsetto as it wafted back in, going into one last expression of the song’s title, before Bettencourt ended things with the final G chord.
That awkward moment aside, I thought “More Than Words” was the bee’s knees; played it damn near every show until I gave up the radio thing at semester’s end. And even though commercial radio played it to death, I never stopped digging it. Dig it to this day, even though the only f-bombs in it are the occasional ones I add when singing along.