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.
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 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).
“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.
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.