Bands like Rush and AC/DC wear as a badge of honor the fact that they’ve never written or performed a power ballad. I love them both, but they’re pussies. The power ballad is to rock and roll what Al Pacino in Scarface is to acting. The artist has little use for subtlety or restraint â€” emotion is laid bare, put forth in the most emotive manner possible. In power ballads, the tempo slows; the guitars come to the fore; the notes the singer sings echo and elongate for miles and miles. When done well, the result is beautiful in its pure, overblown glory, enabling the audience to say “hello” to the band’s leetle friend, usually with lighters held aloft.
Every two weeks or so, I will pay tribute to the finest examples of the genre. Together, we will find this death by power ballad to be an exquisite one, indeed. — RS
The problem most listeners had with Stryper during their brief heyday (aside from those hideous black and yellow-striped spandex outfits â€” seriously, would Jesus have thought them cool? “Well praise me, boys, them’s is some mighty awesome threads”) was the ambiguity they wrote into their hits (all three of them), namely, were their songs about God or chicks? Granted, the bulk of the stuff on their albums came right out and screamed praises to the Almighty, but thumpin’ the little New Testaments they threw into the crowds at their shows would not fly on MTV. And in ’86-’87, these guys were all over MTV.
Take their hit “Calling on You” â€” a cool little pop-metal confection that could, in theory, be about a girl, but you had to wonder. “I can’t explain just what you do to me,” singer Michael Sweet cooed. “My love grows stronger every day.” Replace “you” with “yo’ booty,” add a couple grunts and a silky bass line, and you’ve got 60-70 percent of R. Kelly’s oeuvre. Definitely about a girl, right? But watch Mikey in the video, and every time he says “You” in the chorus, he’s pointing to the ceiling, givin’ props to the G-man, who lives on up there above the soundstage roof.
There’s a slight twist with “Honestly,” the biggest hit off ’87’s To Hell with the Devil. Sounding like Dennis DeYoung fronting Poison, Sweet opens the song floating over a down mattress of Stygian keyboards. “Honestly, I believe in you,” he bleats. “Do you trust in me?” Fairly generic beginning, to be sure, and he follows it by declaring he’ll stand by “you” faithfully and be a friend for always and forever, etc.
Then the chorus pounds in on big, reverbed drums (courtesy of Robert Sweet, Michael’s Vince Neil-lookalike brother) and muted power chords (from the excellently named guitarist, Oz Fox), and Sweet’s voice, which has thus far barely managed to be heard over the instrumentation, bursts forth with commanding presence:
Call on me and I’ll be there for you!
I’m a friend who always will be true!
And I love you, can’t you see
That I can say I love you
Now, if he’s shouting his declaration at a woman, fine. She’s got a real ego case on her hands, and a loud talker, to boot, but he seems sincere enough, so she should be okay. But if he’s talking to God? Not so much. Why would God listen to this shouting, hairsprayed, silly-dressing creation give Him a command to call on him? Unless â€¦
Unless Michael Sweet is speaking â€¦ in the voice of God!
Suddenly, honestly, it makes sense â€” a new layer of Stryperesque ambiguity is upon us. Filled with the spiritâ€” sorry, The Spirit â€” this revelation brings about in the listener the desire to go back through all of Stryper’s other songs (To Hell was their third record) and, armed with this new information, revisit those lyrics that puzzled the listener so â€” Woman? God? God? Woman? â€” to finally understand this crafty nuance good Mikey has graced us with, lo, these several times. And the listener vows to get down to this most serious of tasks â€¦ Right. After. The. Guitar. Solo.
Only, there’s no guitar solo. Just a brief synthesizer riff (with the synth doubtless set to the “Orchestra 3” setting), before the second chorus. Apparently, either the excellently named Oz Fox didn’t show at the studio the day the solo was supposed to be cut, or Michael Sweet, all jacked up from singing in the Voice of God, didn’t think a solo was necessary. Maybe he even thought God doesn’t like guitar solos (which is crap, cuz everyone knows David whistled the riff to “Layla” right before he smote Goliath. Look it up). But to dare speak in such a voice â€” sorry, Voice â€” and not include a guitar solo? Mike, you just lost us. We’ve got wings in the oven and MTV’s celebrating its 1 millionth airing of the Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” â€” how else? â€” by playing it again.
Gotta run. You take care, Mike. Or God. Or â€¦ whatever â€¦