Death by Power Ballad: Quiet Riot, “Winners Take All”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Kevin DuBrow‘s cocaine-assisted demise in 2007 denied the world additional work from one of the great philosophical minds in hard rock. Not really, but has there ever been another frontman in the genre who could implore a crowd to “get crazy” (spelled crayzee, if you use the metric system) so convincingly? It was as if he had made the trip from sanity to his current state, and knew the most rockin’ way of getting there, if you wanted to come along too.  Ozzy tries to pull it off every time he gets onstage, but no one has truly doubted his sanity since maybe ’86. Blackie Lawless from WASP is vulgar (in a cool way) and dresses like a Troll doll in a leather bar, but he’s perfectly sane. When DuBrow sang, “Metal health will drive you mad,” you knew he knew firsthand just what metal health could and would do to you, and it wasn’t pretty.

But even crayzee front men have their moments of reflection, and 1984’s “Winners Take All” is just such a moment. The climb to chart-topping heights had given Quiet Riot plenty of fodder for whacked-out tour photography (as evidenced by the plethora of crayzee pics that graced the inner sleeve of Condition Critical, the album from which “Winners” hails), but it apparently came at a price. DuBrow sounds positively bone-weary, like he just sent the evening’s groupie on her way, it’s four in the morning, and he’s staring into his Jack Daniels bottle, wondering if he’s seeing things, or whether that’s really a little man in a tugboat floating around down there.

He contemplates life and all its many disappointments. “Life’s been good / Life’s been bad,” he muses, in a true best-of-times, worst-of-times moment of deep thought. Stunned at the depth of his thought, he looks further inward: “Now I know what I had / Has taken its toll on me.” The listener longs for him to enumerate the things he’s had — women, booze, tinnitus, crabs, a metric ton of coke, hairpieces — but he tries to dig deeper into his thought. “Yes, we give,” he declaims, “and we take / What we get is what we make.”   What we get is what we make. Apparently, DuBrow has exhausted himself — hey, that is a little man in a tugboat — and, reeling, he declares we must all “Believe that dreams come true.”

“The price is high,” he continues in the bridge, “when you keep the score / Take your souls and your goals / To the top.”  What that means, I have no idea—my soul will occasionally hit the top of something (usually during a bout of acid reflux), but I’ve always aimed low in life, so my goals typically never even hit medium height. Kevin has lost me there.

Oh, but the chorus redeems even the most muddled musing. If there’s a template or prototype for anthem writing, this might be it. A chorus of multitracked DuBrows make a declaration of unity (“Together we stand”), note the consequences of disunity (“we won’t take no fall”), and finally, make another, longer declaration of unity (“Cuz we’re winners and winners take all”).  This is delivered with such strength, such grandeur, such over the top power ballad goodness, I reach for a lighter every time I hear it. Frankie Banali’s drums sound like an anvil dropping down the stairs in an echo chamber; Carlos Cavazo’s power chordage is tinny but true; Rudy Sarzo’s bass—well, I think there’s a bass in there, but Banali’s bass drum provides the bulk of the low end.

DuBrow’s second verse hits plenty of clichés—we’ve laughed and cried, time heals all wounds, we’ve paid our dues, turned the tide, etc. The verse just takes up space until the chorus comes around again. And I reach for a lighter again, to no avail (I keep forgetting I don’t smoke). As Cavazo rips off a stately solo, one cannot help but wonder how this is all going to end—what could possibly be a proper conclusion for DuBrow’s rumination on life and love and the pomp and grandeur of that chorus.

Why, with a “Na-na” outro, of course.

The soaring chorus of Kevins does a little heavy metal Al Jarreau thing, wordlessly vocalizing the melody while Banali and Cavazo wail away behind him/them. It makes Journey’s “na-nas” at the end of “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin'” sound like Sam Cooke-ified hippy shit, which, of course, it was (Kevin DuBrow’s been dead for a year and a half, and I still think he could kick Steve Perry‘s ass). What a perfect way to end this most perfect power ballad. Kinda brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it?

I regret I never saw Quiet Riot live. I had plenty of chances; they must have played around here once a year for the last five years of DuBrow’s life, from one sports bar 20 minutes from my house to another dive about two miles away in the other direction. I could have probably had a beer with Carlos, talked drumming with Frankie (I’m not a drummer, but I could have faked it), or just basked in the bass-lickin’ rock god aura that surrounds Rudy Sarzo. And maybe, just maybe, Kevin DuBrow and I could have talked about that night years before when the man in the little tugboat got him thinking about being a winner.