Now here is an album I haven’t played in a long time!
When the supergroup known as Damn Yankees first emerged in 1990, they quickly became my favourite new band. Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw (Styx), Jack Blades (Night Ranger) and drummer Michael Cartellone emerged with one of the hottest new albums of the summer: Pure radio-ready hard rock, but with the integrity added by the Nuge himself. All aboard!
(I like that Ted is in the credits also as “security”. You can picture it.)
So what is Damn Yankees? Light rock, Great Gonzos, or a mixture? The answer is: all of the above.
The predominant direction is radio-ready hard rock circa the time. Even though all these guys had been around for a while (especially Ted), if you didn’t know who they were it was easy to mistake them for the new hot band. Their lyrics are geared to the young.
Dressed to kill and lookin’ dynamite,
With her high-laced stockings and her sweater so tight,
I asked her name,
She said her name was ‘Maybe’…
Oh come on guys! Jack Blades was 36 years old when he sang that. We already have one Gene Simmons. Thankfully, the lead single “Coming of Age” was musically impeccable for hard pop rock. Lyrically, there is nothing of any value here, just meaningless male drivel. The Van-Hagar like licks of “Coming of Age” are enhanced by the aggressive lead guitar work of Terrible Ted, who probably thought the lyrics were pure poetry.
The bluesy riff of “Bad Reputation” screams Nugent, but the vocals of Blades and Shaw blend as if they have always been a vocal team. Of course as we all know, Damn Yankees led to a long and very productive partnership for the two, with Shaw-Blades being a personal favourite album. The most remarkable thing about Damn Yankees is indeed the blend of vocals. Just listen to that bridge in the middle of “Bad Reputation”. Two rock singers rarely complement each other as well as Shaw and Blades. But just when you thought it was going too folksy, Ted returns with a fluttering blitzkreig of strings and (probably) freshly killed meat.
“Runaway” features some of Shaw’s great slide guitar work, on a mid-tempo rocker with an unforgettable anthemic chorus. Damn Yankees is often forgotten for its guitar work. Think about it though: Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent are two of America’s best from the old school. While the songs are simple pop rock, the solos are simply awesome.
By the time fall 1990 rolled around, it was time to drop a ballad for a single: “High Enough”. In the year 1990 there were a number of acoustic ballads that were all very similar sounding: “Silent Lucidity”, “More Than Words”, and “High Enough”. There is no better way to describe “High Enough” than “sounds like summer 1990”. Unfortunately it does not stand out or have any qualities that make it more memorable than the other ballads out that year. The saccharine strings just do me in. I get ballad-fatigue. And let’s not even talk about that awful music video.
The band’s namesake track “Damn Yankees” sounds like a Nugent song. It has a chunky, ballsy riff, though nothing to write home to mother about. Unfortunately the lyrics are terribly dated, the kind of pro-American intervention sentiment that went out fashion many years ago. With references to Manuel Noriega and the Middle East, this is all much less glorious with the benefit of hindsight. There’s a lesson to be learned there: avoid overly politicizing your lyrics, young rockers.
For a better ballad than “High Enough”, check out side two’s opening track “Come Again”. This one is old-school, sounding something like Styx’s “Boat on a River” colliding with the Nuge on “Stranglehold”. It builds into a frenetic solo section that is just to die for, Nuge seemingly doing his best Eddie VH impression. Then on “Mystified”, Ted brings the blues while Tommy gets down on the pedal steel. This is a great little blues rock jam of the kind ZZ Top are comfortable with. I’m certain Rev. Billy would approve of the Nuge’s blues licks, authentic as they come.
“Rock City” ain’t bad at all, accelerated for your pleasure and name-dropping Jimmy Page in the lyrics. It’s not the heaviest song on the album — they save that for the end — but it’s definitely second. There is little doubt, based on interviews with the band, that the heaviness came from Ted. Let’s all take a moment now to thank Ted Nugent for rocking so damn hard. Thank you, Mr. Nugent. Penultimate track “Tell Me How You Want It” is a pretty good mid-tempo song, with classy vocals from Tommy and Jack. Had they released more singles from the album, this one would have been up for the job.
And then finally…
A blues lick, and Ted speaking: “Nice lick! I have a feeling this is gonna be a rhythm and blues song…nice, real nice. Tasty. WAITAMINUTE!”
“Piledriver” is just a dumb sex song, but it’s also pure Gonzo Ted, the Ted you knew was hiding somewhere on this album. You wanna hear Ted go friggin’ top gear for four and a half minutes? “Piledriver”, baby! Tommy and Jack on the backing vocals even drop an F-bomb! Can you believe it? They’re the nice guys of the band! But let’s not forget Michael Cartellone on the drums, hammering relentlessly, not only keeping up with Great Gonzo but setting the freakin’ pace! Even without headbanging along (strongly recommended), you’re exhausted by the end of the tune.
I say again, thank you Mr. Nugent.
As it turns out, Damn Yankees is still an entertaining listen 26 years later. I didn’t properly appreciate the smoking guitars on it at the time. Back then, I was interested in ballads and singles and catchy tunes. Even so I still liked “Piledriver” back then…because it’s awesome. The album’s real flaw is on the lyric sheet. I know these guys can do better than some of these tracks.