REVIEWS: Russian Blue – Demo #1 and #2 (1990-91)

RUSSIAN BLUE – Russian Blue demo #1 (1990), demo #2 (1991)

Russian Blue were a Toronto hard rock act fronted by the talented Jo E. Donner who, in a perfect world, would have been signed to a major label deal had not the roof caved in when grunge arrived.  They first rose to national awareness as part of the legendary Raw M.E.A.T Vol 1 compilation of Canadian indi rockers.  Upon hearing that first song, “Once a Madman”, I was immediately hooked on this band!  Donner had the pipes (often compared to a young Robert Plant) and the looks (also Plant), and the band clearly had the writing chops to crank out at least one world class rock song.  Its slow build was unusual in hard rock at the time, as was the lack of an actual chorus.  I had to hear more, so I wrote the band and ordered a tape.

RUSSIAN BLUE_0004Demo #1 (1990)

The first self-titled tape came in a professionally printed three colour J-card, with printed stickers on a white cassette.  Pretty pro for the time.  The J-card itself is a three panel fold out, with a black and white photo of the band and lyrics too.  Four songs, same both sides.  Let’s give’r.

The familiar tamborine and guitar licks of “Once a Madman” open the first tape.  M.E.A.T editor Drew Masters always advised bands submitting demo tapes to keep it short (three to five songs), professional looking, and top-loaded with the best songs.  Someone listening to a tape was likely to hit eject after the first half of the first song if they weren’t feeling it.  Russian Blue must have been paying attention because they hit all three marks.  (Masters’ other major beef with bands was not listing the song titles, the name of the band, or any contact info on a demo tape!)  The second strongest song “Likkin’ Dog” (ugh, come on, spelling) is suitably next in line.  Digging into a heavy groove and solid riff, I’m reminded of early Skid Row or Guns N’ Roses.  Donner truly had the voice of a rock star.  The other members (guitarist Richard Gauci, drummer Mike Willerding and bassist “Robo”) are also up to the task.  Gauci in particular boasts an impressive arsenal of tricks and licks for a guy you’ve never heard of before.

“Miss Precocious” enters with the same drum drum hook as “Dirty Weapons” by Killer Dwarfs which came out earlier that year.  Coincidence or inspiration aside, it’s a demo so it’s not a big deal.  “Miss Precocious” is an OK sleaze rocker that David Coverdale would have been comfortable taking a spin with.  This could have been on Slip of the Tongue as one of David’s randy odes to young ladies.  The generic “Had Enough” is the weakest of the four tracks, and is last on the tape for that reason.


A brief history of M.E.A.T Magazine

RUSSIAN BLUE_0005Demo #2 (1991)

Russian Blue added me to their mailing list and sent updates as to their current goings-on.  A second demo tape with four all-new songs was put up for sale and I ordered mine forthwith.  I was disappointed that the second demo didn’t come as professionally packaged as the first, but I suspect that the band spent all their money on that first tape and the spot on Raw M.E.A.T Vol 1.  The second tape came in a hand-made J-card with a photocopied band photo on the front and a sticker with the song titles inside.  Unfortunately the second song is misspelled “Balck” (“Black”) and this carried over to the sticker on the cassette shell as well.  The tape, a TDK D50 (50 minutes was a specialized length) was of good quality and has the same songs on both sides.  The tape also came with a little Russian Blue paper logo.  At least they tried.

The second demo showed the creeping influence of darker alternative tendencies.  “Mama’s Love” was different from anything on the first demo, taking a swampy minimalist approach to the verses.  When Donner rips out some rock shrieks, things kick up on a notch or two on the chorus.  The song is almost equal to “Once a Madman” in terms of quality, but traversing a different more menacing direction.  Keeping the stronger tunes up front, “Balck”…err, I mean “Black” is second in quality.  It opens with a psychedelic lullaby-like opening, before creeping into another swampy groove.  The vibe is nastier, including the first “F-bomb” of the album: “Nothing lasts forever, except the words to this fuckin’ song.”  It’s a good track and though it didn’t really last forever, it did get re-worked into “All”, a song on Russian Blue’s only full length CD, after they changed their name to Feel.  The album was called This (1994).

sam_1568“Child of the Ocean” has a drony, spare riff and a cool exotic sounding guitar solo by Richard Gauci.  It continues Russian Blue’s journey into less mainstream sounds, as this is a dreamy rocker.  The final song, which is the F-bomb  laden “Bleed”, is the most old school.  This one is basically a Guns N’ Roses B-side wannabe, but who gives an F-bomb?  Russian Blue had ability to pull of a ballsy song like “Bleed”, false ending and all, without sounding like douchebags.  Good on them.

In closing

A few years back, I posted a chapter of Record Store Tales (Part 146) about my cassette collection called Cassettes Part II – The Indi Years.  I showed off these old Russian Blue tapes, and less than a month later, a fellow enthusiast found the post and contacted me.  He was really excited about this second demo, because he had never seen it nor even heard of it before.  He didn’t know that Russian Blue had anything out between the first demo tape, and Raw M.E.A.T Vol 3 (1992), to which they contributed “Mama’s Love”.  It’s always a pleasure to be able to bring content like this to the internet, finally shedding light on the dark crevasses of rock and roll that were previously obscure.  The reader told me, “I was really into these guys back in high school. I pretty much bought a cowbell because of ‘Once A Madman'”.  How awesome is that?

Given that you have to allow for certain deficiencies in demos, especially from the cassette era, I am giving Russian Blue a grade based on the reasonable expectations from the period.  That considered, the Russian Blue demos come in at:

4/5 stars each.

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40 comments

        1. BWAHAHAHA!

          In all seriousness though I’m fascinated by early audio and photographic technology. If I had unlimited space and funds, I would have to have at least one item of every format ever made. Everything from cylinders to minidiscs, I’d have to have it even if nobody has a working minidisc player anymore.

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        2. Dude, if I had all the money in the world, I’d fly you over here in my private plane to personally curate my library. $65,000 a year do it for ya to start? Plus regular access to the plane so you can return home to Scotland on weekends and holidays.

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  1. This is awesome! I had no idea about these guys at the time, so I’m a bit behind here, aren’t I.

    Ordinarily I would say that shining light into rock’s dark crevasses is a baaaaad idea, but this time it all worked out great.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No I never heard of them….I think I may have stopped getting MEAT by than. Can’t blame Masters though he was trying to survive Remember when he made the country mag in around late 92 early 93…. But back around 91-92 he kept us in the loop on the up an comers….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, BULLET was the country mag. Then in 1996 he did ARM magazine. I think that stood for “alternative rock magazine” or something. I have one with your buddies Oasis on the cover.

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  2. I loved this one, that’s so cool having these demos – that’s really amazing being in at the ground floor like that.

    Dude, please stop shining lights on your dark crevasses …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome. Old demo tapes rock. I used to have a few of these from local bands that I’d caught or played with back in the day.

    As for tapes making a comeback, I probably agree with you – nice to have, but the quality issues rule them out as a preferred format.

    Also, you sure the song definitely isn’t called Balck?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I am not 100% sure! I don’t think I have ever piece of writing where that song is spelled differently. So, good point. I have no definite proof it’s not called Balck!

      As soon as I have access to cheap CDs (when I started at the store) I immediately began replacing my cassettes with them. Some had been so played that they were listenable, but most had just gotten old and were starting to go. I’m still looking to replace some. A Wolfsbane album here, a Bonham album there, and I’ll have them all on CD.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I done the same – replaced all the tapes I could with CDs (could also meaning wanted to). Had a bunch of great boots that I eventually found on the internet, too.

        Now I’m finding I’m replacing the CDs with records where I can!

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        1. I should mention that there were some releases such as EPs that were never put out in CD format so I’ve had to buy them on vinyl, in order to get them on a more “permanent” format!

          I’m not replacing a CD with a vinyl, because I want to keep my original digital format, but I do augment them with vinyl copies when affordable.

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        2. I’ve replaced a fair few. Still have the CDs and the digital copies, but I almost exclusively listen to vinyl at home, so it made sense to pick up albums that I will always consider favourites.

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        3. My setup isn’t currently super convenient for playing vinyl, so for me that is currently a special occasion. I did used to play vinyl frequently as possible.

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        4. Haha! Downstairs is practically a man cave. Stereo, xbox (not often played, right enough), and the TV. Surrounded by my comforts.

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        5. MAN CAAAAVE! We have an extra bedroom downstairs and I’ve taken it over. It ain’t big, but it’s got all my goodies in it. I am, in fact, currently upgrading it right now. It is gonna be awesome, when I’m done. I may never leave it… :)

          Liked by 1 person

        6. As for the set-up, I tried having the stereo upstairs, and that worked for a little while but I couldn’t ever play the vinyls when the kids were awake because they jump around so much, they were actually making the records skip.

          I agree that the vinyl has become a bit more of a special occasion – the stereo is downstairs now, so I wait for the kids to go to bed and then get in the man cave and drop the needle!

          Liked by 1 person

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