WHITESNAKE – Slip of the Tongue (originally 1989, 2019 (6 CD/1 DVD 30th Anniversary Rhino box set)
There’s a theme you may have noticed every time we review a Whitesnake box set: David does it right.
Here’s another one: Coverdale cares.
Slip of the Tongue gets the super-deluxe treatment this time, the third of the “big three” to go that way. This is the album that divided fans the most. Replacing Vivian Campbell was none other than ex-David Lee Roth stringbender Steve Vai.
“What the hell would that sound like?” we all wondered.
Longtime Whitesnake fans felt it was a step too far into the world nebulously defined as “hair metal”. Others loved the guitar mania inside, with Vai stretching out in ways different from his prior bands. Not the “definitive” Vai record that they still wanted (and would get a year later), but certainly a platter they could sink their teeth into. And it was a weird reason that Steve was playing on Slip of the Tongue at all.
As you’ll see from a feature on the included DVD (“A Look Back: Whitesnake Chronicles with DC and Adrian Vandenberg”), the album was written and thoroughly demoed with Adrian. They wouldn’t need a guitarist until it was time to tour. At this point, Adrian injured his wrist and was unable to finish. Steve Vai and David Coverdale found that they got along famously and the seven-string wizard brought his unique and advanced stylings to the blues-based Whitesnake.
What the hell would it sound like?
It sounds absolutely mental.
With the benefit of now hearing all the demos that Adrian laid down, it’s obvious Steve Vai didn’t just pick up his guitar and play the parts. It’s clear right from opener “Slip of the Tongue”. Compare the album to Adrian’s demos on the other discs. Vai changes one of the chord progressions to high-pitched harmonics, and, let’s face it, improves the song. Elsewhere there are unique trick-filled runs and fills that add another dimension to the music. If Whitesnake was always 3D rock, Vai upped it to 4. The guitar work is blazingly busy, never cliche, and always to the advancement of the song. With all respect to Adrian Vandenberg who wrote these great songs, Steve Vai was more than just icing on a cake. Slip of the Tongue arguably sounds more a Vai album than Whitesnake, even though he didn’t write any of it.
The beauty of this set is that if you’re more into ‘Snake than alien love secrets, you can finally hear the purity of Adrian’s vision in the multitude of early demos included.
Unfortunately, if you’re familiar with the album you’ll hear something’s up by track 2. “Kitten’s Got Claws”? That song used to close side one. What’s up? The album running order has been tampered with, and so has “Kitten’s Got Claws”. It’s now missing the Steve Vai “cat guitar symphony” that used to open it. It could be a different remix altogether. My advice is to hang on to your original Slip of the Tongue CD. You’re probably going to still want to hear the album and song as they were.
This running order puts “Cheap An’ Nasty” third, a song that structurally resembles the ol’ Slide It In Whitesnake vibe. Of course Vai’s space age squeals and solos modernized it. Listen to that whammy bar insanity at the 2:00 mark! Up next is “Now You’re Gone”, a classy rocker/ballad hybrid that has always been an album highlight. The demos on the other discs allow us to hear how much this song was improved in the final touches. That cool answering vocal in the chorus, and the hooks that Vai added, came much later. Strangely, this box set puts the other ballad, “The Deeper the Love”, up next. Keyboard overdubs made it a little too smooth around the edges, but a good song it remains.
The Zeppelinesque “Judgement Day” is a track that used to piss off some fans, who felt it was an abject rip off from “Kashmir”. The Vai touch of sitar (replacing guitar in the early demos) probably aided and abetted this. Regardless it succeeds in being the big rock epic of the album, and a favourite today. Another strange choice in running order follows: “Sailing Ships”, formerly the album closer. It’s quite shocking to hear it in this slot. Again, Vai replaced guitar with sitar, and David goes contemplative. Then suddenly, it gets heavy and Steve takes it to the stratosphere.
“Wings of the Storm” used to open side two; now it’s after “Sailing Ships”. Some tasty Tommy Aldridge double bass drums kick off this tornado of a tune. Vai’s multitracks of madness and pick-scrapes of doom are something to behold. Then it’s “Slow Poke Music”, a sleazy rocker like old ‘Snake.
The new version of Slip of the Tongue closes on “Fool for Your Loving”, a re-recording of an old classic from Ready An’ Willing. The new version is an accelerated Vai vehicle, lightyears away from its origins. Coverdale initially wrote it to give to B.B. King. Vai is as far removed from B.B. King as you can imagine. The original has the right vibe, laid back and urgent. This one is just caffeinated.
The only album B-side “Sweet Lady Luck” is the first bonus track on Disc 1. By now it is the least-rare B-side in the universe, having been reissued on a multitude of Whitesnake and Vai collections. Valuable to have to complete the album, but easy to acquire. It’s basically a second-tiered speed rocker with the guitar as the focus. Other B-sides from this era were remixes, and they are included here as well. The Chris Lord-Alge mix of “Now Your Gone” is the kind that most people won’t know the difference. Vai said that Lord-Alge could make the cymbals sound “like they have air in them.” Then there’s the “Vai Voltage Mix” of “Fool for Your Loving”, which has completely different guitar tracks building an arrangement with way, way, way more emphasis on the instrument. The rest of the disc is packed with four more alternate remixes: “Slip of the Tongue”, “Cheap An’ Nasty”, “Judgement Day” and “Fool for Your Loving”. These mixes have some bits and pieces different from the album cuts. Vai fans will want the alternate solo to “Cheap An’ Nasty”, though it’s less whammy mad.
Of course, “Sweet Lady Luck” wasn’t the only song that didn’t make the album. In old vintage interviews, Coverdale teased the names of additional tracks we didn’t get to hear: “Parking Ticket”, “Kill for the Cut”, and “Burning Heart”. They’ve been safely buried in Coverdale’s vault, until now. Additionally, it turns out that Whitesnake also re-recorded a couple more of their old songs: “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” and “We Wish You Well”. They’re all here in different forms on the demo discs.
Perhaps “Kill for the Cut” would have been one dirty song too many for the album. It ain’t half bad, and has a unique little bumpin’ riff. “Parking Ticket” had potential too. Rudy Sarzo gave it a pulse that might have taken it on the radio. The 1989 monitor mix would have been perfect for B-side release. Why did Cov have to hold out on us all these years? “Burning Heart” was a special song, a re-recording of an old Vandenberg track that David really loved. Unfortunately the monitor mix is is only a skeleton of what could have been a sensational Whitesnake ballad. “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” is heavily modernized, with keyboards sounding like they were trying to recapture “Here I Go Again” (which they were). “We Wish You Well” is more contemplative, with piano as the focus.
All of this previously unheard material is scattered over several discs. “Evolutions” (Disc 3) is a familiar concept to fans of these box sets. Demos from various stages of completion are spliced together into one cohesive track. You will be able to hear the songs “evolve” as the band worked on them. Every track from the album plus “Sweet Lady Luck”, “Parking Ticket” and “Kill for the Cut” can be heard this way. Disc 4 is a collection of monitor mixes with all the album songs and all the unreleased ones too. These discs are the ones that allow us to really hear the album the way it would have been if Adrian didn’t hurt his wrist. We would have got an album that sounded a lot more like Whitesnake. It was audibly different even if familiar.
Perhaps the best disc in the entire set is “A Trip to Granny’s House: Session Tapes, Wheezy Interludes & Jams”. It’s just as loose as it sounds. Enjoy the funk of “Death Disco”, the funkiest David’s been since Come Taste the Band. If you’ve always wanted to hear David sing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”, now you finally can! There’s a lot of goofing off in some of these tracks, but also a lot of rock. It’s live off the floor as they rehearse the songs, as a four piece band with Adrian. Not all the final lyrics or solos are set, but the songs are so raw and fresh. Some of the jams show a side of Whitesnake we rarely got to see. Kind of Purple-y in the way they just could take off and rip some blues.
Given all the rich audio extras, it’s OK if one of the CDs is a little impoverished. That would be disc 2, “The Wagging Tongue Edition”. This is a reproduction of an old promo CD, featuring the album Slip of the Tongue with a Dirty David interview interspersed. This was meant for radio premieres. It has the entire album in the correct order, but because it’s faded in and out of interviews, it’s really not a substitute for a proper copy of the original album. At least the vintage 1989 interviews are interesting. It saves collectors from buying a copy on Discogs. (Coverdale claims “Judgement Day” was originally titled “Up Yours Robert”. Ooft.)
There’s another disappointment here and it’s difficult to forgive. In 2011, Whitesnake released the long awaited Live at Donington as a 2 CD/1 DVD package. This brilliant performance finally gave us a permanent record of Whitesnake live with Vai. In our previous dedicated review, we had this to say:
Musically, it’s a wild ride. It’s not the Steve Vai show. Adrian gets just as many solos, and his are still spine-tingling if more conventional. It is loaded with ‘Snake hits, leaning heavily on the three Geffen albums. In fact there is only one pre-Slide It In song included: The Bobby “Blue” Bland cover “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”. And, since it is also the pre-grunge era, there are plenty of solos, which today seems excessive. Aldridge does his drum solo at the end of “Still Of The Night”. Vandenberg gets his “Adagio for Strato”/”Flying Dutchman Boogie”. Most excitingly, Steve Vai performs two songs from his then-brand new (and top 40!) album Passion And Warfare: “For The Love Of God” and “The Audience Is Listening”, with Aldridge on drums. Coverdale even introduces him as “Mr. Passion and Warfare!” so I imagine there was no sour grapes that Vai’s album was doing so well. And lemme tell ya folks — the audience WAS listening, and going nuts too!
Unfortunately, to save a little bit of plastic, this set was reduced to a single CD for its inclusion here. The Vai and Adrian solos were cut, though Tommy’s drum solo in “Still of the Night” is retained. To cut the guitar solos in such a guitar focused boxed set is not only unwise but unforgivable. Fans who don’t have Live at Donington are going to want to shell out again just to get the solos. Fortunately, the whole show is uncut on the included DVD.
The DVD has plenty of added value; it’s not just a reissue of Live at Donington. You’ll get the three music videos from the album (“Now You’re Gone”, “The Deeper the Love” and “Fool for Your Loving”). There’s even a brand new clip for “Sweet Lady Luck” cobbled together from existing video. Then, you can go deeper into the album. The aforementioned sitdown with David and Adrian is really enlightening. Another behind the scenes feature narrated by David is fantastic for those who love to watch a band create in the studio. Coverdale’s not a bad guitarist himself.
These Whitesnake box sets also include ample extras on paper. There’s quite a nice miniature reformatted tour program with the majority of cool photos. A large Slip of the Tongue poster can adorn your wall, or remain safely folded up in this box. Finally, there is a 60 page hardcover booklet. This is a treasure trove of press clippings, magazine covers, single artwork, and more. Lyrics and credits wrap it all up in a nice little package.
Because we know that David puts so much into these box sets, it’s that much more heartbreaking that this one is so slightly imperfect. The shuffled running order and lack of guitar kittens on “Kitten’s Got Claws” is a problem. The truncated live album is another. It means I have to hang onto old CDs that I was hoping to phase out of my collection in favour of this sleek set. Alas, I’ll keep them as they are my preferred listening experience.
Otherwise, in every other way, this box set delivers. It makes a lovely display next to its brethren and it justifies its cost.
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