Part Five of the Early Savatage series!
Like many bands then and now, Savatage were led astray by bad management and poor direction by record company executives. At least they tried. Hoping to make some headway, Savatage leader Jon Oliva agreed with the record company’s plan for a change in style. Steering towards hard rock and hoping to become the next Journey, Oliva and company said “what the hell”. Meanwhile, Jon Oliva had submitted some songs to management to see if any other artists might be interested in recording them: “Lady in Disguise”, “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, and “Crying For Love”. They turned around and said “No, we want Savatage to record these songs.”
New bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was lined up to replace Keith Collins. They flew to England on a tourist visa to record the album, only to find Steve “Doc” Wacholz detained at the airport for five hours. “I’m a golf instructor,” he claimed at customs, but most golf instructors don’t carry drum sticks and sheet music in their carry-on bags. This is a perfect metaphor for the album Fight For the Rock: a band masquerading as something they were not.
A big echoey 80s sound blunts the sharp edge that Savatage gained on Power of the Night (produced by Max Norman). “Fight For the Rock” is a good song, but obviously toned down in comparison to title tracks past. Most obtrusive are keyboard overdubs by a studio cat, very different from the keys that Jon Oliva would eventually bring into Savatage himself. These sound like added afterthoughts, not structurally part of the song. Still, as stated, a good song in that Dokken-Crue mold. Only the Jon Oliva screams really connect it with early Savatage.
Keyboards return on “Out on the Streets”, a song from Sirens re-recorded. As a ballad, you can see why the suits thought it would be worth another shot. A great tune is a great tune, but the pipe-like keyboards don’t do it favours. “Crying for Love” is a re-recording of “Fighting for Your Love” and one of the songs Oliva wanted another artist to record, perhaps John Waite. It’s a heavier ballad, not as good as the Sava-demo, but retains some balls.
Hard left turn ahead: “Day After Day” by Badfinger. Oliva decided to do this track since he’d be playing the very piano from the original, so why not. He’d already gone this far. May as well go all-in. “Day After Day” is perhaps the least “Savatage” song in their entire catalogue. A very different Savatage would have evolved had this been a hit for them. A Savatage more akin to Night Ranger or even Stryper!
There are only two songs that Jon Oliva considers “real” Savatage songs today: “The Edge of Midnight” and “Hyde”. They occupy the dead center of the album, closing side one and opening side two. Although they too are infected by the awkward keyboard overdubs, they are both metallic Savatage lurkers, dark and shadowy. “Hyde” hits all the right notes, with perfect OIiva lyrics:
“A good man to evil,
From the potion on the table,
Taken by mistake, but now it’s far too late.”
“Lady in Disguise”, which exists in superior demo form, was largely rewritten to be submitted to other artists. It exists on Fight For the Rock as the third ballad, watered down and rearranged to accommodate a big keyboard hook. “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” is a little more Savatage even though it too was not intended for their use. It’s a hard rock Savatage, a little Dio-ish and one of the few songs with a recognizable Criss Oliva guitar riff.
Not particularly Sava-like but very good just the same is the Free cover “Wishing Well”. It and “Day After Day” remain the only true covers that Savatage have ever recorded. It’s a pummelling arrangement, well performed and strangely appropriate for the Sava-treatment. It’s like their “Green Manalishi”. Concluding the album, “Red Light Paradise” has a touch of that occasional Sava-sleaze. Good track with a nice chug to it, and plenty of screamin’ vocals.
As before, Steamhammer added bonus tracks to the 2002 reissue. From the Gutter Ballet tour and featuring an expanded lineup with second guitarist Christopher Caffery, it’s two live classics: “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface”. Could that year, 1990, have been peak Savatage? That powerful lineup was short lived, as Caffery temporarily left the band at its conclusion. When he returned, Criss Oliva was gone, killed by a drunk driver. To the point: these are killer versions, (and not the same as the live album Ghost in the Ruins).
Steamhammer also provided in-depth liner notes, housed inside a blurry reproduction of the cover art. That is an unfortunately win/lose. One is tempted to have two copies of the album, just to have clear original cover art. Collectors need more that one copy anyway, just to deal with the maze-like bonus track situation through the entire Savatage collection.
As Jon Oliva says in the notes, Fight For the Rock is not a bad album, if you like hard rock. It’s not really a good Savatage album. Hey, they tried, right? They swung for the fences. And when they failed to hit the grand slam home run, they lost credibility with fans and the rock press. Still, for those willing to check it out, there are a few rewarding tracks amidst the muck.
The story continues with these previously posted reviews:
Part Six: Hall of the Mountain King (1987)
Part Seven: Gutter Ballet (1989)
Part Eight: U.S.A. 1990 (live bootleg)
Part Nine: Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
Part Ten: Edge of Thorns (1993) – New singer and death of Criss Oliva