You’ve heard the classic line about how a band or artist has their entire life to come up with their first album and then only a few short weeks to record a second one after the first one breaks big. It’s certainly a nice problem to have and it’s one that Night Ranger was well-prepared for as they found themselves suddenly in the planning stages to record the album that would become Midnight Madness. The San Francisco-based band began recording the album in 1983 and released it in October of that same year. Their ace in the hole was their producer Pat Glasser, who suggested during the recording sessions for Dawn Patrol, the band’s 1982 debut album, that they should hold some songs back for the second album.
As he explained to the young group, as soon as they found success with that album, their available creative time would evaporate. They would be on the road and touring relentlessly in support of that hit album. Eventually, the label would look at them, right as they would be getting off the road and they would say “hey there, guys — it’s time for that second album.” There would be no time to write an album’s worth of songs and barely enough time to record them, he cautioned them.
The band took Glasser’s advice to heart and stashed away nearly half an album’s worth of songs, one of which was the now immortal “Sister Christian,” a song which founding member, drummer and lead vocalist Kelly Keagy had written pre-Night Ranger in 1979 with the group Stereo, which featured several future members of Night Ranger, including besides Keagy, bassist Jack Blades and white-hot guitarist Brad Gillis. The three had played together previously in a band called Rubicon and Stereo was the next step of an elongated evolution process that would eventually lead to the formation of Night Ranger.
Stereo was a “punkish/new wave band” at the time that they were playing shows in 1979. As Keagy told us during a recent interview, there were a lot of songs being written within the band at that time which didn’t fit into the kind of music that Stereo was playing. “There’s a lot of [those] songs that didn’t relate to having two guitar players and being more of a straight ahead rock band. So we couldn’t use some of those songs.” What wasn’t right for Stereo would be perfect for Night Ranger, which began to emerge later that same year, first under the name of “Ranger,” a name that they would drop only a short time before their debut album was released in 1982, due to a copyright claim from a country band with a similar name.
Released in late 1982, the band’s debut album Dawn Patrol had a lot of promise and turned a decent number of heads, thanks to the album’s lead cut “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” which skimmed the edge of the Top 40, landing at #40 and giving the band their first taste of chart action. Things could have potentially even been better if their record label Boardwalk hadn’t folded suddenly in mid-1983. But all was not lost for Night Ranger — former Boardwalk vice-president Bruce Bird brokered a deal with Irving Azoff to sign the group to MCA with the promise that he would honor their existing plans and help them keep the momentum going. Night Ranger would be the first signing to Bird’s new imprint, Camel and with Azoff’s help, indeed things kept moving and the group didn’t skip a beat.
But the members of Night Ranger were admittedly a bit blindsided by their initial success. “We were like “holy sh-t, man — we’ve got to come up with another record,” Keagy says. “We never thought we’d sell as many records as we did on the first one and we were just happy we did and we were happy we made enough money to go back and do another record. Irving honored that and said “yeah man, come over here and we’ll honor it and we’ll move ahead, we’ll get the second record out here and we’ll keep the momentum going.” So that’s what we did.”
They hit the studio to record Midnight Madness with an initial batch of songs that included “Sister Christian” “(You Can Still) Rock In America,” “When You Close Your Eyes” and “Let Him Run.” The group dug their heels in and wrote additional songs to form the remainder of the album and when they emerged, they came out with the album that would give them their first platinum-selling release and the musical moment which would really forever alter the future course for the band.
Midnight Madness lodged itself firmly in the Top 20 of the Billboard Album Charts, peaking at 15 as “Sister Christian,” a song which Keagy was inspired to write after visiting his younger sister Christy, went Top 5. Things were quite magical for Night Ranger at the midway point of what would be a very successful three album arc for the group, who would follow Midnight Madness with the 7 Wishes album in 1985, which again went platinum, spawning additional hits for the band.
Looking back at the period, Keagy notes that although Glasser could be tough as nails to work with in the studio, he was a really important part of the band’s success. “He believed in our songs when nobody else did, you know? Pat came to a showcase that we had [where] everything that [could have gone] wrong did, but he still believed in the songs and he signed us to a production deal when everybody else passed.
Then he took us in the studio on his own dime, nurtured the songs and then came back out with a killer demo and shopped it and got us a record deal. So that was the amazing thing that happened with Pat. We did three albums with him and then the record company was looking to up their game a little bit more and that’s when some other producers came in, but we’re really glad to have had Pat in our lives though. Because he really did discover us pretty much, along with Bruce Bird and nurtured those early songs to make them hits.”
30 years later, Keagy feels gratified that the group is still able to continue to make music on their own terms. The past few years have been especially productive ones for the band and after releasing the well-received Somewhere in California album in 2011, which was followed by an extensive summer tour with Journey and Foreigner, Night Ranger eventually regrouped to record an acoustic live album and DVD, 24 Strings & A Drummer. The live release, recorded at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Francisco, featured reworked versions of some of the band’s most well-known material.
It was a very quick pit stop for Night Ranger and at that time, they were already beginning to work on their next studio album, which they began recording in earnest earlier this year. As Keagy told us during a recent phone conversation from his Nashville home, the album is now nearly complete with release plans tentatively set for spring of next year. We spent some time talking about the forthcoming release with the veteran drummer and vocalist and it’s evident that he and the members of Night Ranger (which these days features Keagy, Blades and Gillis, plus newer members Joel Hoekstra on guitar and Eric Levy on keyboards) are quite excited about the album of material that they’ve captured.
At the time that you guys did the Hole in the Sun album, it had been about 10 years since the previous Night Ranger album. Now you guys are working on the third Night Ranger album since then, so things have been moving at a pretty good pace. It seems like you have some particularly good momentum on the heels of the reception to the last one.
It was kind of interesting to have this flurry of activity after having a long eight year break in between recording. We were really ready to start recording and getting creative and stuff but it’s just all about….after being together for 30-plus years, you know when you go back in and start thinking about doing another record, it’s like “what do you write about now?” After doing eight or 10 records, it’s a tough process because things change with your life and you’re not the same kid you were when you got signed in the beginning and it’s like how do you make it sound mature but still rockin — but not sound like you’re still trying to be a kid at 50-plus years [of age] and all that.
We’re still rock and rollers at heart and we still really like playing together and we just tap into things like that. Making a new record again after a couple of years has been really good, because you know, we started a new process with Jack and I and Brad, which we never really tapped into before. Which is getting in a room with no songs written prior to it. We didn’t try to have preconceived ideas [going into the process], we just jammed. It didn’t take long and we had eight songs and we were like going “holy sh-t.”
So you started the process completely from scratch with no songs?
That was the process that we used to do is we used to bring songs and ideas in. Then [with this one] we just decided to get in the room and open up with a riff or start playing a groove and just start from scratch.
You guys did a little bit of that on the last album if I recall correctly, with “Lay It On Me.”
That’s where it started. That’s really where it started was with Somewhere in California. We’re just continuing that same kind of process on this new album and it’s really working out great.
I know that you and Jack both write a lot. So what is that like for you to really go in cold like that?
You know, it was really tough, I’m telling you. It’s hard to go in there and just have musical ideas instead of coming in with like “I’ve got this chorus — check this out.” Just having it be music in the beginning was really rough, because you’ve just got musical ideas — there’s no melody and there’s no lyric. So we went kind of backwards on it, which is really hard and unusual for people that actually sit down and write songs. So that’s how it happened and it was a great project to start with Brad that way.
Brad is not one of those kind of guys, but he’s an incredible guitar player. Musically, he just totally fit riffs with chordal ideas and even melodies and he just kind of let Jack and I do the lyric and melody writing part of it. But when we got in there, we had to have a good template to write to, so that was what the difficulty was. It was like “oh, okay well there’s this riff — but it doesn’t really sound like a verse — can we make that riff be the chorus?” Or make that riff be the intro and then we need a good solid base to write a verse to. So we had to really rethink our whole way of doing it. It was really great — it was a big challenge.
Creatively, it seems like that would make things interesting for you and engage you guys in a new way, just because you are getting outside of your comfort zone.
Exactly. That was exactly it and we didn’t realize that was happening until we started coming up with really good pieces. A lot of times, things don’t come right away — we’ll sit on something. Like this year, we started the record in March. Then we had to go on tour and there was no real time to come back to it until part of June and then September was a big chunk and then we just finished another section too. So going away from it and coming back actually helped. So that we could have the ideas that we were carrying with us in our laptops and phones and listen to them and come up with things on planes and in hotels and pretty soon things started cranking. Then when we got back together in October, we had like three-quarters of it done.
So do you have eight songs completely done or do you still have to record them?
We have 11 things that are all done and I just sang three [more] things here at the house. We just had a break — we just did the KISS Kruise, Florida and San Juan Puerto Rico and then we came home and I had a couple of days of just sitting around just thinking about stuff. Then I had Anthony Focx come over, who did our last record. He came over and we cut three more vocals for me. So that’s what we’ve kind of been doing is we’ve been carrying drives with us that have all of our files on it. You know, with Pro-Tools and stuff like that, we all have systems at home so we can reference what we’ve done and bring up the files at home. So I had Anthony come over and I sang three songs, so we’re pretty much done [with the initial tracking].
The last record, there was a really big push talking about how it was a return to the “classic” Night Ranger sound. With this one, where did you want to go with this new album on the heels of what you did with the last one? Also, you obviously know what people want from a Night Ranger record and I think you spoke to this a little bit, but do you feel boxed in by that?
You know, that’s really our comfort zone, but we do like to step outside every once in a while. There’s always two or three songs on the record where we do something different. Like “Lay It On Me” was pretty much heavy metal and we hadn’t done anything like that in a long time. But every once in a while, we experiment with stuff like that, because we’re really influenced by hard rock. But Jack and I have pop influences, so that was where when Brad came in with a lot of those riffs and brought those in, we would have to try and see if we could add our influence in there but still not change it. So on this record, we’re kind of keeping to that same thing, but we’re writing more on a personal level on some of these songs like we haven’t done in a while. So we’re continuing our career, which it’s amazing to still be able to do that and at the same time experiment.
Can we talk about some of the songs on this forthcoming record?
Yeah, there’s a few titles. We have this one song called “The Mountain Song,” which is just a lyric — not the chorus, but that was a part of the lyric and we said “man, that would be a cool title,” so we used that. We’ve been having a good time messing around with different kinds of situations. A lot of our stuff has always been [about] relationships, but maybe this time it’s a perspective on life and stuff like that. So it’s not going to be so much like a Night Ranger record of the past, because we were younger and the songwriting influences have changed a little bit.
There’s one song that just came up recently that’s called “Hang On” and it was from our original demos — not the whole song but just the chorus idea and the chorus lyric. We were writing this thing, Jack and I, and early on in the year we had brought up some of our old demos. We listened to some of our old demos and “Sister Christian” was on there and “Sing Me Away” and there was this one song called “Hang On,” right? We were like “that was a pretty cool idea, remember that? Yeah? Okay.” When it came to writing the song, Jack was like “well, what if we used that chorus.”
It was such a brilliant idea and so we said “well, how would that work?” I started singing it, because I had written the original melody and lyrics. He goes “what if you sang…” and we started singing it and the light came on and it was like “yeah, this works!” So that was interesting. That was [something] on our original demos from 1979, you know?
Then there’s a couple of songs in there — there’s a song called “Brothers.” “No Time To Let Go” is another title and “Don’t Stop,” “St. Bartholomew” [and] “Rollin’ On” [are some more titles], so yeah, we’ve been pretty excited about this. With “St. Bartholomew,” the whole angle is “you might think I’m this way, but I’m no saint.” So that’s some of the titles and we’re pretty excited about this album. After making an album like Somewhere in California, [where] we wrote a bunch of good things [with] some really good songs in there, [to be] able to continue that whole vibe and be very positive [is really cool].
You know a lot of times when you do records too close together, like we did in the past, sometimes it suffers because you can’t write….I mean, the Beatles did it. Some of their most famous records were done every six or eight months and it was just crazy how that body of work that’s survived [came together]. It’s a big tall order 30 years after the fact to be able to go back in here and write two good records. It’s a blessing, so we’re very excited.
You guys are playing a few shows in December and one of those shows is a date in Michigan with Cheap Trick. How far back do you go with those guys?
We go back a long ways, man. Of course we were huge big fans and then in ‘85 or ‘86, we toured together. They were opening for us and we were so humbled because they were such big stars to us. They were opening for us and we were on a roll at that time, so it was great. I think we did maybe like three months with them and we really bonded with those guys. Every year or so, we always play three or four shows with them. So I’m looking forward to seeing those guys again. We saw them earlier this year doing a date or two and so yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing those guys.
Both bands are from that era from when bands actually had to know how to play live and there was no faking it. You guys are certainly both survivors of that era.
I appreciate that. That’s really a nice compliment. You know, we just come from the old school of when you’re in the studio, you’ve got to learn how to play this part. There’s no patching it up. Sure you could cut tape back then, but the song had to be cut right and then you could say “oh yeah, we need to cut out this one part.” But that was it. You either needed to learn how to sing it or you needed to learn how to play it over and over again. Sometimes it was really frustrating — it was like “I hate this f–kin’ song now!” [Laughs] But out of that came that tightness that bands get and then you go right out of the studio and you go out there and you start playing this stuff and you play 150 times that year or 200 dates, so you really got good at playing, even if you weren’t a great musician, you learned how to play those songs good.
Night Ranger will perform two shows in Nevada at the beginning of December and also a Michigan date towards the end of that same month. Visit their official website for the latest details on upcoming shows.
Night Ranger band photo via McGhee Entertainment and used with permission.