Geffen Records, 1987
REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/03/2011
Whitesnake was my first rock album experience. I wasn’t even three years old when it was released, but it changed my life about a decade later after my favorite aunt played the tape for me in her Ford Expedition. Before Whitesnake, I mainly cared about video games, movies, television, and comic books. Music, outside of church hymns and a Motley Crue single (“Dr. Feelgood”) that my mother hated, wasn’t important to me.
I say all of this so that you can chalk this positive review up to nostalgia if you’d like. Then again, nostalgia would suggest that I still like Get A Grip by Aerosmith (their 1970’s output made me forget it), The Legend of Zelda on NES (not fun), Transformers (though I gave the dreadful Michael Bay movies a chance), and the Spider-Man clone saga (I was rooting for Peter Parker the whole time!), but I don’t.
The truth is that I keep finding more things to appreciate about, yes, the album that gave us “Still Of The Night” (the song most associated with Led Zeppelin), “Is This Love?” (I always skipped this one … until recently), and “Here I Go Again” (which the great David O. Russell film “The Fighter” uses more than once).
It’s enlightening to look at Whitesnake’s career before Whitesnake. Years ago, I was excited to find an earlier Whitesnake tape, the 1978 EP Snakebite. This album, while not unlistenable, is hardly remarkable. Lead singer David Coverdale sounds like he’s holding back on the majority of the record, and the riffing is standard 1970s hard rock fare, just not as catchy. As I listen to Whitesnake’s first hit, “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City,” it’s not surprising that it isn’t what most people remember about Whitesnake (whether that’s good or bad). The song does little to set the band apart from Bad Company, Foreigner, or any other successful blues-based group of the 1970’s.
From there, the band got more sexual. For example, the cover of Lovehunter featured a naked woman straddling a gigantic snake in strike mode! Album titles like Ready An’ Willing, Come An’ Get It, and Slide It In let you know what they’re about, and each of them went gold in the United Kingdom (Slide It In would get a boost to double platinum after the self-titled LP). The band had started to come into its own, especially with the great song, “Slow An’ Easy,” but it would take a different lineup, new production, and a different version of “Here I Go Again,” a track on 1982’s Saints & Sinners, to reach a larger audience.
OK, so superhot actress Tawny Kitaen “trying to fuck a car,” to quote Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, in the “Here I Go Again” music video really helped, too, but better production and a small but important lyric made the song far more palatable. In the Whitesnake version of “Here I Go Again,” Coverdale sang “Like a drifter I was born to walk alone” instead of “Like a hobo I was born to walk alone,” the lyrics in the Saints & Sinners version. Either way, the line was ridiculously dramatic, but Coverdale comparing himself to a dirty bearded man – rather than a loner who might not smell so bad – just didn’t fit the glam metal craze of the 1980’s.
The other thing is that when you get past the car sex and everything else, “Here I Go Again” is a great underdog anthem. As I mentioned, the track is featured prominently in the 2010 film “The Fighter,” which takes place during the 1990’s. Director David O. Russell is onto something: “Here I Go Again” represents the guy with the odds against him, no matter how cheesy and inauthentic the song is. It’s laughable that Coverdale, a guy dating a beautiful actress at the time, was able to sell the underdog theme with his vocal performance, but he did.
Another important piece to the success of Whitesnake was guitarist John Sykes. Coincidentally, I was talking with a friend in the bar last night about how great the guitar playing in “Crying In The Rain” is. The vibratos particularly kick ass. This isn’t the case with the original “Crying In The Rain,” the second borrowed track from Saints & Sinners. The guitar playing on the original is tiny in comparison. Sykes is not usually mentioned in discussions of great guitarists, but his musical philosophy – less blues and more metal – helped cement Whitesnake’s tremendous success. Before Sykes, Whitesnake was stuck in the 1970’s. But with Sykes in the lineup, the band was able to give listeners something that sounded current. Admittedly, drummer Aynsley Dunbar also did his part in bringing a heavier sound to the band, but Sykes’ playing was indispensible.
Having said that, I can’t claim Whitesnake is a great album with a straight face. Its lyrics are silly and trite, the singles ultimately make or break the listening experience (though if they work for you, there’s five of them), and “Don’t Turn Away” is one of the worst pieces of filler ever. But it’s quite easy to call Whitesnake a decent pop album that established the lasting cultural identity of the band. And I have the tape in my aunt’s SUV to thank for the start of my wonderful relationship with music.