In the spring of 1990, I was in the middle of the first long-term relationship of my adolescent life. By “long-term,” I mean “six months,” but hey, when you’re teetering on the cusp of 16, anything over a few weeks feels like it’s meant to last a lifetime; you’re feeling things that not only have you never felt, but you’re convinced no one else has felt, or could possibly understand. This is The One — the life partner destiny has handed you at a ridiculously young age because the two of you are so goddamn special. And at that age, of course, it’s hard not to get lost in each other’s glowing visions of who you are — hard not to lose chunks of your identity to the suffocating, marshmallowy sweetness of teenage love. Hell, the line between who you are and who your significant other wants you to be can be tricky to walk as an adult — and just like when you’re an adult, sometimes you have to forget what the other person wants and let it all hang out for awhile. Men and women both feel this emotional pendulum swing, I think, but for guys, it’s a process that usually includes doing something potentially harmful, like buying a motorcycle or touching a stripper.
Ten years before, Geffen Records made platinum out of the ‘supergroup’ Asia, which cobbled together leftover bits of ELP, Yes, and King Crimson to form a sort of dull-witted prog/rock alloy that shone bright, but briefly. A decade later, Warner Bros. (with the help of John Kalodner, John Kalodner) brought the world a louder, hairier version of the rock ‘n’ roll all-star lineup, combining the talents of AOR mainstays Jack Blades (ex-Night Ranger), Tommy Shaw (ex-Styx), and Ted Nugent, along with future Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Michael Cartellone. The late ’80s had been cruel to Blades, Shaw, and Nugent; Night Ranger fell apart in early 1989 after a barely attended tour with Kansas, Shaw’s three post-Styx solo albums went mostly unheard, and Nugent had bottomed out with 1988’s If You Can’t Lick ‘Em…Lick ‘Em, which featured a Bon Jovi co-write. Clearly, what they were doing wasn’t working, so it was time to combine forces and shake things up a little.
On paper, it looked artistically hollow and cynical — the desperate merger of three fading stars who’d fallen out of favor with radio and MTV. And maybe that’s how it started out. Musically, though, Damn Yankees represented a welcome shift for all three of the band’s creative principals: Shaw and Blades helped add some pop polish to Nugent’s lame caveman shtick, and Nugent dragged Blades and Shaw away from the keyboard-driven “rock” they increasingly turned to as the ’80s wore on. Clad in denim and newly free of hair product, the members of Damn Yankees presented a back-to-basics version of the babes ‘n’ good times rock that made them famous. And Damn Yankees was, for the most part, a pretty stripped-down affair; aside from some Alan Pasqua organ and the orchestra that popped up on the smash hit power ballad “High Enough,” the album was mostly just Blades, Shaw, and Nugent baring their teeth and flexing in front of Marshall stacks, scrubbing off a bit of polish and promising to “kiss you in between your legs” (“Bad Reputation”) and “rock this fuckin’ nation” (“Piledriver”). Blades and Shaw harmonized like brothers, leaving Nugent free to wank all over the record; meanwhile, Cartellone rocked the drums just as impeccably as he maintained his signature bouffant/mullet combo.
So yeah, Damn Yankees rocked harder than, say, Night Ranger’s Big Life or anything Styx had ever done. These guys were no dummies, though; they knew that, in order to succeed, they’d need to make sure their album was polite enough for the Top 40, so they hired Ron Nevison to produce, and the result is one of the weirder entries in the hair metal canon — an album that tries to be loud and dirty, but whose loads of squalling guitars and shrieking harmonies always sound like they’re buried under layers of sand and wet blankets. It’s a sonic tactic that makes sense on tracks like “High Enough,” but when the band really tries to rock out, it’s just silly — songs like “Bad Reputation” and the title track sound oddly muffled, with Cartellone’s drums reduced to weak slaps against paper towels and Blades’ bass practically nonexistent in the mix.
Which is, in all likelihood, exactly what Nevison was supposed to do. This is the guy who cut his hitmaking teeth on Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree,” after all — the guy who spent the mid-to-late ’80s producing hit-chasing former rock acts like Chicago, Heart, Survivor, and Eddie Money. No one bought Nevison records expecting them to rock; he knew how to get a great sound out of a guitar, but he’d never met a rhythm section he couldn’t reduce to background clatter. Even by the synth-driven standards of the era, Nevison was a bit of a lightweight, and in hiring him, Damn Yankees signaled that no matter how many black-and-white shots they posed for in sleeveless tees and ripped jeans, they were still playing by the same rules that produced “Sister Christian” and “Come Sail Away.” And who can blame them, when those rules still worked? Damn Yankees was a bigger chart success than any of the band’s members had tasted in years, reaching the Billboard top 20 and scoring hits on pop and rock stations along the way. Damn Yankees had none of the danger, or even the honesty, of actual rock ‘n’ roll, but for pre-Nevermind teens and their Breathe-listening girlfriends, it was close enough for blowing off a little bit of steam. I can’t help but think that today’s kids, singing along with Ke$ha as she hollers “show me where your dick’s at,” are missing out somehow.