Tesla came right out of the box with two great studio albums in a row. Their debut Mechanical Resonance is close to perfect. Two years later they came into their own even more with The Great Radio Controversy which saw them stretch it out further. The dropped some of the more overt heavy metal influences that were heard on “Modern Day Cowboy” and went for the roots. The Great Radio Controversy provided Tesla with their biggest hit, “Love Song”, the track that got me into the band for good.
1989-90 was peak power ballad time and I loved ’em as much as any lonely highschool boy would. Bob Schipper was the Tesla fan first, but once I decided to take the plunge, I went all the way and got both albums on CD instead of cassette. Though the big hit was the ballad, The Great Radio Controversy is a tougher album overall than the debut. Once hooked by “Love Song”, other tunes made themselves immediately prominent. Unfortunately the ballad probably didn’t convey an accurate image of Tesla to the general public.
Tesla were great at writing hooks, and opener “Hang Tough” hits right away with a killer little bass intro by Brian Wheat. This hard-hitter is a killer song with dual guitars, and Jeff Keith just givin’ ‘er at the microphone. It’s a defiant tune with the kind of shouted chorus that a concert crowd could get behind. Guitars galore courtesy of Mssrs. Hannon and Skeoch. Continuing the lyrical theme of “hangin’ in there”, it’s “Lady Luck”. The punchy chorus, “Lady Luck took a walk,” has a Def Leppard vibe circa Pyromania. Jeff Keith’s convincing rasp is like a blunt instrument for delivering hooks.
The first track that really showed Tesla were a cut above the Hollywood trash was “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, a track ahead of its time. With a grungy, chunky groove and acoustics layered with electrics, wah-wahs and slides, it’s Tesla doing their own thing. It has one foot in southern rock and another in molten lead. At this point, Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch were on their way to “serious guitar duo” status.
Tesla lighten up a bit on “Be a Man”, catchy and simple enough for the radio. Nicely composed for easy consumption, complete with a considerably canorous guitar solo. The skies grow dark again quickly on “Lazy Days, Crazy Nights” which sounds like it should be a party rocker, but is not. “I’m doing fine right here on borrowed time,” sings Jeff on this memorable dirge. Things get hot again on “Did it For the Money”, a slammin’ track with another riff reminiscent of a certain British band from Sheffield. They don’t slow down on “Yesterdaze Gone”, the side closer, which is only faster and more intense.
A solid side-opening “Makin’ Magic” brings the tempo back to centre. Chugging along with guitarmonies aloft, this is a nice rocker to reset the tone. This leads into another single, “The Way It Is”, which is a light rocker but not quite a ballad. Tesla’s southern side shines through. It sounds like a celebration with a little bit of Skynyrd on the side.
I have one memory regarding “Flight to Nowhere”. It was September of my last year of highschool, and for the yearbook, they wanted to take a big aerial photo. I believe we stood in the football field spelling the letters “GRCI” while a plane flew overhead taking the pictures. I remember standing near my friend Danesh, who also owned a CD of The Great Radio Controversy. This song came to our minds as we jokingly imagined doomy scenarios of plane crashes and our imminent deaths. “Goin’ down! I’m on a flight to nowhere!” Anecdote aside, this killer track is a deep cut tragically ignored over the years. As it blasts through the skies powered by the chug of electric guitars, it only gets more intense. My favourite line to repeat: “Now the headlines read all across the lands, ’bout the motherfuckers gettin’ way outta hand.” It seemed to genuinely apply to the world we lived in, as Iraq invaded Kuwait and created a powderkeg in the middle east. More importantly it captured my youthful anger at the situation the world found itself it. Motherfuckers.
The one weakness that The Great Radio Controversy has is its length. We’re on track 11 and only now getting to “Love Song”. Like “Little Suzi” on the previous LP, this one opens with a unique acoustic instrumental passage. It is a mini composition of its own, unrelated to “Love Song” with a vaguely neoclassical vibe. Yet it’s still a part of it, as one seems incomplete without the other. Either way, “Love Song” is a powerhouse, a definitive power ballad, and one of the best from a period that suffered from a glut of them. Midway it goes to a whole new level with a gut-busting Frankie Hannon lead.
Everything after this unfortunately feels like anti-climax because of the massive presence “Love Song” has on the second side. “Paradise” is a good tune, which actually sounded better when it was redone acoustically on the next album Five Man Acoustic Jam. The original is a tad overwrought, like heavy-handed Aerosmith. The final song is, appropriately enough “Party’s Over”. The riff bounces from the left speaker to the right in a cool effect, and once again I’m reminded of another five-member band from across the pond with the same management (Q-Prime).
Though song for song, The Great Radio Controversy seems the equal of Mechanical Resonance, it’s just a hint more uneven due to its longer running time. Minor quibble. Tesla had made two outstanding rock albums in a row by now and were still growing. Some say The Great Radio Controversy is the best Tesla album. I say, you be the judge.