Tommy Skeoch

REVIEW: Tesla – Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990)

TESLA – Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990 Geffen)

One of the great Unplugged albums of all time…isn’t even an “official” Unplugged album.  That would be Tesla’s spontaneously released Five Man Acoustical Jam from 1990.  Its hit single “Signs” absolutely helped set up the MTV Unplugged revolution.

With no intention of creating a live album, Tesla played a few acoustic gigs on off days and then recorded the Philly show for the archives.  However a radio station in Boston started playing an acoustic rendition of “Signs” and plans were put in motion to capitalize.  Thus Five Man Acoustical Jam came to be, a highlight of the Tesla catalogue that was almost completely unplanned.

“We’re just fuckin’ around tonight!” says singer Jeff Keith before “Heaven’s Trail”.  Well then Tesla should spend more time fucking around.  The looseness of the songs was so fresh for 1990.  Tesla rolled the hits: “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Gettin’ Better”, “The Way it Is”, and of course “Love Song”, the only one with an electric solo.  But because they were “just fuckin’ around”, there are also some very interesting covers:  Beatles, Stones, the Dead, CCR and of course the Five Man Electrical Band.  Tesla’s version of “We Can Work it Out” is awesome and incredibly fun.  Less so with the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” which is an unusually structured song to start with.  “Lodi” by CCR was custom made for Tesla.  “Signs”, of course what the smartest cover song decision the band ever made.

Five Man Acoustical Jam is a live album held in high esteem, for many good reasons.

1. A great selection of original material (old and brand new) that worked well in the acoustic format.
2. Choice covers.
3. Terrific recording, and 100% live with no fixes or overdubs.
4. Expert musicianship.
5. Humour.

Frank Zappa asked “Does humour belong in music?” The answer is “Sometimes”! One of those times is a loose, fun acoustic show. They could get away with playing a joke track like “Tommy’s Down Home”, written and sung by guitarist Tommy Skeoch. “I’d like to cut the balls off a long-haired hippie, and tie them up to a tree,” he sings gleefully.

The one single was the smash hit “Signs”, and it had a non-album B-side.  “Little Suzi” (also a cover, but an earlier one) might be from the same gig.  Jeff’s voice is shredded on this one, but it’s hella cool.

It’s probably fair to say that Tesla are underrated.  They get stuck on tours with bands like Poison, who have nothing to do with the rootsy rock that Tesla has on offer.  Tesla are better than that, and Five Man Acoustical Jam is actually a bit of an essential classic to own.   The irony is that Tesla’s most definitive live album is the one that was basically a fluke!

5/5 stars

 

Advertisements

REVIEW: Tesla – Bust a Nut (1994)

TESLA – Bust a Nut (1994 Geffen)

During my first few weeks at the Record Store, one of the new releases I got to deal with was the new Tesla, Bust a Nut.  My boss cracked open a copy to play in store, but he wasn’t impressed.

“It sounds the same…” he remarked.  “It’s just the same.”

Gosh, Tesla didn’t go grunge or rap in 1994?  What a crime.  No, instead Tesla stubbornly continued, as they always have, without bowing to trends.  Bust a Nut wasn’t a successful album, but it was a damn good one.  To call Bust a Nut “the same” sells it short.  It sounded like Tesla, but a tad heavier and more diverse.  Of course, this being Tesla, there must be ballads too.

“The Gate” invites you in via chugging guitars and squealing six-strings.  It merges into “Invited”, a hell of a fine introduction.  “Invited” reflects the light and shade of Tesla in one song:  the mournful acoustic verses, the heavy and catchy choruses, all grounded in a solid classic rock vibe.  Tommy Skeoch and Frank Hannon made one fine guitar duo, and the layers of instrumental goodness will keep you interested and digging for more.  Heavier still is “The Solution”, which is about as metal as Tesla have ever been.  Songs about environmental conservation are more relevant than ever:  “Mother nature’s on her knees, and we’re the reason for her disease.”  Very true, Jeff Keith.  “If we’re gonna make it through tomorrow, the solution is to make a change today.”  Tesla have never used such a grinding, detuned riff like this before.  What’s this about it being “just the same”?  Tesla didn’t go grunge, but they were able to go harder within their own style.

A brilliant track called “Shine Away” uses the soft/loud dynamic popularized by grunge, but that chorus is brighter than the sun.  Enjoy some patented Tesla guitar harmonies which always sound as if inspired by Thin Lizzy, though this time verging on Iron Maiden!  Time to cool things down with a ballad, and “Try So Hard” is a lovely one in the acoustic mold.  A good variety of tunes occupy the rest of side one, but the next obvious standout is “Action Talks”.  This is as angry as Tesla get, even dropping a “fuck you!” in the lyrics.  It’s difficult to imagine that the same band can do “Action Talks” and “Try So Hard”!

Bluegrass and heavy bluesy rock collide on “Mama’s Fool”, as Tesla have never been afraid to mix genres.  Sharp fans will recognize the opening and closing acoustic patterns as the same as “Government Personnel” from Psychotic Supper (1991).  A slamming beat drives the tense “Cry”, a killer track based on a simple riff.  Dig that theremin!  “Rubberband” returns to the soft/loud format, and the loud part is fucking killer.  The chorus goes on for days and sticks like glue.  Another heavy groove called “Earthmover” earns its title, but some of the best tracks on side two are the ballads.  “A Lot to Lose” is likeable, and “Wonderful World” begins with a southern acoustic flavour.  Best of all is the fun closer, the old Joe South hit “Games People Play”.  It’s Tesla-fied, and the sitar is ditched in favour of more traditional rock instrumentation.  It’s transformed into a soul-gospel-rock and roll good time.

Tesla fired Tommy Skeoch (too many drug problems) and went down to a quartet before splitting up.  Thankfully they have enjoyed a long and quality-driven reunion since 2001.  Bust a Nut is an unsung highlight of their catalogue, and an album you’d be well advised to pick up.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Tesla – Mechanical Resonance (1986)

Welcome to Tesla Day!

Deke over at Arena Rock is reviewing Tesla’s difficult fourth album Psychotic Supper, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about it. Meanwhile, we’ve got Tesla’s debut Mechanical Resonance right here at mikeladano dot com! Hope you dig both.

Scan_20150918TESLA – Mechanical Resonance (1986 Geffen)

Tesla came out of the gates with everything in its right place:  a good label (Geffen), great producers (Thompson & Barbiero) and the best management you could ask for (Q Prime).  The band were and are all top drawer musicians, and they had a batch of killer rootsy hard rock ready to record.  Ready, set, go!

Tesla have never done anything wimpy.  Whatever they do, they inject muscle into, even the ballads.  “EZ Come EZ Go”, the opening salvo, is surprisingly tough for the era.  Starting dark and ominous, it only takes a verse before it turns to scorch mode.  Singer Jeff “JK” Keith proved his versatility immediately on this track.  From whimpering tones to belting at the top of the lungs, JK did it with rasp and incredible lung power.  Backing him are the underrated guitar duo of Frankie Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, a six-string tag team to rival the big boys.

“Cumin’ Atcha Live” starts with Van Halen-esque blitzing, except with two guitarists instead of one, fretboards ablaze.  It takes almost a minute for the song itself to ignite!  “I’m a mean machine, I’m the kind you don’t wanna meet,” warns Jeff, but I don’t believe him.  Tesla were known as one of the “nice guy” bands of rock, in contrast to bad boys like Motley Crue.  Troy Luccketta is a drummer with a recognizable style.  You can hear it in the way he rides the cymbals.  On bass, the bearded Brian Wheat, the backbone of the group.   There is no let up, only a full-on rock assault.

The album generated quite a few single/videos, and “Gettin’ Better” was an easy selection.  The mellow, ballady (but soulful) opening is just a feint.  This turns into a good time rocker in no time.  A message of positivity and perseverance is good on the ears, and it’s nice to hear a kick-ass but optimistic rock song that isn’t sung by Jon Bon Jovi.  It gets heavier from here.  “2 Late 4 Love” is not a Def Leppard song, nor Prince.  It is however pure metal.  Early Tesla seemed to be a bit more metallic in nature.  With a Motley chug and a Dokken vibe, it’s not really representative of where Tesla was headed, but it’s good enough.  “Rock Me To the Top” occupies a similar chug with high quality results.  Finally, ending the first side is “We’re No Good Together” which actually has some soft, Cars-like synth in the background.  This slow, bluesy number sure picks up at the ending.  Jeff Keith really turned in an excellent lead vocal, especially for the slow, soulful parts.  What a singer!

“Modern Day Cowboy” is one of Tesla’s trademark tunes today.  There’s that cowboy motif, so popular in the 80’s that you’d think we all rode steel horses.  Although it is now a Tesla classic, I actually don’t think it’s one of the better tunes on the album.  It’s a fine, serviceable hard rocker, with edge, drama, acoustics and the works thrown in, but it doesn’t have the melodic sensibilities that most of the album has.  The guitars sure do smoke.

Nothing wrong with a little piano in a rock ballad, is there?  “Changes” is a great, heavy ballad with loads of guitars and tasteful keys too.  I don’t even think I should be calling this a ballad.  It burns rubber like there’s no tomorrow when it’s time for it.

Since this time, Tesla have become known for performing some amazing covers, both hits and obscure.  “Little Suzi” is the first, and I’d never heard of the band Ph.D. of whom this is a cover.  Even if I had, Tesla’s version of the song is diametrically opposed to the dramatic synthpop original, which was titled “Little Suzi’s on the Up”.  Tesla do it as a folksy, bonfire acoustic/electric rocker complete with a pretty acoustic intro.   It is instantly likeable.  Bon Jovi once said “the way to tell if a song is good is to see if it works acoustically.”  If that is true, then Tesla have proven this of “Little Suzi”.

Similarly upbeat and irresistible is “Love Me”, featuring a juicy talkbox solo by Tommy Skeoch.  The song has a nice big riff and plenty of hooks to go around.  Even though that’s 10 songs and plenty enough for an album, it ain’t over next.  “Cover Queen” is a smoky rocker with ammunition to spare, but it is “Before My Eyes” that is the pièce de résistance. It’s risky to close an album with a slow, trippy long bomber (5:31, longest on the album). “Before My Eyes” is not an instant love, but over time it grows and grows. The psychedelic voices at the end can be heard to be saying “Is it a dream?” over and over, very trippy indeed!

What a debut, and as incredible as it is, some would say that the follow-up The Great Radio Controversy was even better.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Tesla – “Call It What You Want” (single)

TESLA – “Call It What You Want” (1991 Geffen UK single)

Yesterday, I reviewed Tesla’s damn fine third album, Psychotic Supper.  As part of that, I wanted to talk about this single, the album’s second.  It’s an excellent companion to the album proper.

“Call It What You Want” isn’t a bad song.  It has a great chorus even if I find the verses sub-par.  Where Tesla have always excelled is in their rootsy but eloquent musicianship.  Not only are there Lizzy-esque dual guitar harmonies, but there are other things that border on country style.

I also dig the lyric, dated although they may be:

“Heavy metal, hard-core, punk, pop, or thrash,
You can call it anything, it don’t matter to me,
Call it what you want,
It’s all music to me.”

I think Tesla more than most hard rock bands around in 1991 were about breaking down boundaries between genres, and I’m sure this lyric was sincere to them.  I know guitarist Tommy Skeoch had a thrash side project going at the time called Thrash Tandoori.

I hate when bands use a regular album track as a B-side!  Nonetheless, “Freedom Slaves” is one of the best (if not the best) song from Psychotic Supper.  This is the hard rock/heavy metal side of Tesla shining through.  A Leppardy riff accompanies a song that boasts an anthemic chorus and dark verses.

The next two tracks are both previously unreleased, and both are covers.  “Children’s Heritage” is what I’d call an obscure cover!  I’ve never heard this, nor the band that wrote it, Bloodrock a 70’s band from Texas.  It’s a good song, straight ahead riff based hard rock.  It’s also self produced by Tesla, and is a lot looser than the album material.

More familiar is the old blues classic “Cotton Fields”, rocked up and slowed down from its CCR incarnation.  It bares almost no resemblance to the classic Leadbelly version, but it does rock.  Dirty slide guitars and wah-wah solos render this version almost as if Zeppelin were covering it.  That’s the overall vibe anyway, and few hard rock artists were sounding this raw and authentic in 1991!

In a rare  (I assure you) lapse of memory, I’ve forgotten where I got this CD.  I think Trevor got it in used, at his store, and sent it to me.  This would make sense, since one of his customers, Gord Taylor, used to sell him metal CD singles that he bought in Europe.  So that piece fits the puzzle.  Either way, whoever originally bought it paid £4.50 at HMV.

Tesla singles are rare in these parts, but thankfully both of these B-sides are now available on the compilation Tesla Gold.

4/5 stars

OMG MORE TESLA_0003

REVIEW: Tesla – Psychotic Supper (1991)

“We’re just children of the 60’s, watched the 70’s go by.  Now we made it through the 80’s, my my how time does fly!” – Jeff Keith

TESLA – Psychotic Supper (Geffen, 1991)

Psychotic Supper, the 3rd studio album by Tesla, is thus far their most adventurous and experimental. Is is neither as immediate as Mechanical Resonance nor as focused as The Great Radio Controversy, instead focusing on longer song structures and diverse influences.  It is difficult to penetrate, and even once you do finally dig in, there are some songs that simply refuse to stick to the memory. However one must applaud Tesla for sheer musical ability and refusal to do the commercial thing and sell out for the long awaited third album.

Taking their love of Nikola Tesla to the nth degree, they present a history lesson in the smokin’ “Man Out Of Time Edison’s Medicine”. What an incredible song. I still remember seeing the music video and being blown away by the solos. Not only are there guitar solos, but Tommy Skeoch torments the theremin, before Frank Hannon slipps on a bass and plays a bass solo too!

Great rock tunes include: “Change In The Weather”, the groovin’ “Freedom Slaves”, the jokey but smokin’ “Toke About It”, the aforementioned “Edison’s Medicine”, and the thrash-like “Don’t De-Rock Me”. Y’see children, back in the 80’s when Al Gore’s wife Tipper was a founder of a pro-censorship group called the PMRC, there really were places called de-rock centers. You could send your kids to detox them off rock music and turn them onto safe alternatives. No lie. (Is it any wonder that bands like Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana came along during this period?)

There are also a series of long, exploratory songs such as the mournful “Song And Emotion”, dedicated to Steve “Steamin'” Clarke of Def Leppard who passed away in January of that year. Skeoch paid tribute to Clarke’s “Gods of War” parts with his E-bow solo, listen for it.  Tommy Skeoch was a devoted Def Leppard fan, and Tesla had also opened for the Leppard because they shared management.

There are ballads too. I don’t think any are particularly standouts in the way “Love Song” was, but “What You Give” was a respectable hit.  I don’t check out Tesla so much for the ballads (even though they are excellent at them) but for the rockers.  Jeff Keith’s raspy but powerful voice can excel at either.  The man is one of the most underrated singers in rock.

If grunge didn’t hit, I could have imagined this album spawning multiple hit singles and videos for at least a year.

4/5 stars

I only own one single from this album, which is “Call It What You Want”.  It has some interesting B-sides, so tomorrow, we’ll take a look at that one!  Hope to see you then.