The Nena Redemption Part 1

You don’t have to understand her in order to love her.

For a few weeks in early 1984, Nena was the hottest woman on MTV. Nena (the German band, led by Überbabe Gabriele “Nena” Kerner and rounded out by four pretty-boy German dudes) was riding high on the charts with the doomsday-themed “99 Luftballoons” (a.k.a. “99 Red Balloons,” the English version), which was stuck at #2 behind Van Halen’s “Jump.” In March of that year, the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in the U.S. was chock full of 1980s heavyweights; Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Culture Club, The Police, Huey Lewis & The News as well as the aforementioned Van Halen had era-defining hits in the top ten. All at the same time. (Life was good, wasn’t it?) And so did an unknown band from Germany. No matter how grainy and low budget its video was, “99 Luftballoons” featured the Eurobabe crush de jour. Everybody loved her, cheesy video, armpit hair and all. (My ex-wife is convinced that being born abroad is something I find extremely attractive in women. No comment from here…)

That infatuation lasted about as long as the video played in heavy rotation on MTV. For whatever reason, the band wasn’t able to place another single into the Hot 100 chart. (Scholars have debated this issue for years and still haven’t reached a consensus. The most popular theories: There simply wasn’t enough gas in the tank for another hit; perhaps the band suffered from record company indifference; or maybe the fact that Nena never bothered to shave her armpits before sporting a tank top in the second version of the video – the one with English lyrics – had something to do with it.)

Finally allowed to play in America: Today, Nena’s armpits are clean-shaven! Photo by yours truly.

Once her moment (nearly) at the top had faded, and it became apparent that no follow-up hit was forthcoming, Nena became a member of the club that included Toni Basil, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Kajagoogoo – one huge hit and then nothing. (Geez – even the Escape Club was able to place a follow-up single to “Wild Wild West” into the Top 40.) A barely released follow-up album was dead upon arrival in late 1985, so aside from appearing on “New Wave Hits of 1980s” compilation CDs, Nena was a memory of a simpler time, at least here in America. (For the record, Nena has maintained a stellar career in Germany for decades. Hit records – like women with armpit hair – are a completely different story in Europe than they are over here.)

The email that inspired this entire mess.

Fast forward over 32 years; in July 2016, a concert email promoting Nena’s tour (Nena the singer – the eponymous band broke up in 1987) “99 Luftbaloons Over America” at New York’s PlayStation Theater lands in my inbox. Other than “Luftballoons” surfacing occasionally in iTunes shuffle (imported from the aforementioned 1980s hits CD), few thoughts of Nena have entered my head since Ronald Reagan’s first term. But it was intriguing especially when I heard there were only three North American dates and this is the first time EVER Nena played in America. (Really? Not even on an 1980s nostalgia tour with Tommy Tutone and Katrina & The Waves?) Over the summer, I was in the process of launching this site, buying domains, screen sharing with a WordPress expert in Oklahoma and so forth, so this seemed like a good chance to review the concert as well as the opportunity to write about yet another obscure 1980s album. (Which will be the subject of a future post.)

$46.50 is equal to €43.85.

So I went ahead and bought a ticket. (An interview request was politely declined by Nena’s publicist.) I also downloaded the 99 Luftballoons album and bought the vinyl LP on eBay for autograph purposes. Since the record sleeve is mostly black, I stopped at Staples to pick up two markers that can handle a black background – one silver, one gold. Unfortunately, security checked my bag at the theater and confiscated the markers, claiming they could be used for graffiti purposes. Ugh, that’s eight bucks and change I’ll never get back. (Note to self: Next time, remember to hide all markers in boots.)

Selfies are the new autographs!

So I entered the theatre and checked out the scene. Despite having one hit almost 33 years ago, there was a decent-sized crowd in the venue. Shortly after arriving, I was walking in the lobby and almost ran into Nena herself! (I have been to hundreds of shows, and never once did I ever see the headliner in the lobby before the show.) Seeing her up close, there was no mistaking who it was, and looked to be average height – 5′ 6″ or so (but was wearing boots that made her look taller). Her handlers were preparing to move her backstage (show time was an hour away), but I managed to get a quick selfie before she was whisked out of sight.

Nena – 99 Luftballoons Over America Tour 2016
Tuesday October 4, 2016
PlayStation Theatre, New York

The Dreaded “Follow-Up To a Classic Album”

Even the best selling and most beloved rock bands are often unable to maintain the same artistic and commercial standards when it comes to following up a classic album. Gone are the days when this sort of behavior was routine (think The Stones’ hat trick of Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile On Main Street). While some less-successful follow-ups have a certain charm of their own (e.g. Led Zeppelin III), others not only fail, but irreversibly damage careers. Here we revisit five follow-ups to classics of the 70s and 80s.



Roger McGuinn – Back From Rio

backfromrio1991 was a very, very good year for Roger McGuinn. In January of that year, the ex-Byrd guitarist and vocalist was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the other members of the influential 1960s/1970s band. In addition, a four-CD career retrospective box set The Byrds, issued the previous October, was the band’s first charting album in 17 years. And this perfect storm was the opportune time to release his first solo album of new material since 1977.

Known for the mid-1960s pop/rock/folk hits including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” The Byrds soon embraced a number of styles, including psychedelic rock (“Eight Miles High”) as well as country rock (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). A dizzying number of lineup changes occurred throughout the band’s nearly decade-long career, which ended (ironically with a full “original band” reunion) in 1973.

In the ensuing years, The Byrds have been cited as an influence on a large array of rock acts, including the Eagles, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, R.E.M., The Bangles and many, many more. Band members occasionally paired up (McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, The Flying Burrito Brothers) and McGuinn released five albums on his own between 1973 and 1977. The McGuinn-Hillman album of 1981 was his last recorded appearance prior to Back From Rio.

Back From Rio was released in January 1991 – timed to benefit from the renewed interest in The Byrds. It relied on the classic sound of McGuinn’s 12-string electric guitar and featured contributions from heavyweights Elvis Costello, Dave Stewart, two ex-Byrds (Chris Hillman and David Crosby), Timothy B. Schmidt, and three of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. The centerpiece of the album, “King Of The Hill,” was a duet with Tom Petty, a long-time admirer of McGuinn. (In fact, their voices are so similar that it’s often difficult to tell which vocalist is singing which verse.) Oddly enough, an “official” video was not produced for “King Of The Hill.”

Peaking at #44, Back From Rio was McGuinn’s highest charting album outside of The Byrds. While the album received wide-spread acclaim critically and was a commercial success, it didn’t provide any career traction and any chance for a hit follow-up was squandered; the next two releases under his name were a late-1991 compilation collection from his 1970s solo career and a live album released in 1996. The next album of new music didn’t occur until 2004; his only notoriety during that period was his Capitol Hill testimony (next to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich!) at 2000’s “Downloading Music From The Internet” hearings. He has, however, performed live fairly consistently throughout his career.

Vital Stats: 

  • Artist: Roger McGuinn (stylized as “McGuinn” on the album cover)
  • Album: Back From Rio
  • Label: Arista
  • Producer: David Cole, Roger McGuinn
  • Released: January 1991
  • Billboard Peak Chart Position: #44

Ceremony – The Cult

the_cult_ceremonyReleased in September 1991, Ceremony, the fifth album by The Cult was the first time in the band’s career that an album wasn’t more successful than its previous one. A perfect storm of factors contributed to this: Band in-fighting, bad timing and a quickly-changing music scene all led to an album that peaked at #25 and quickly was forgotten.

The Cult started life as part of Europe’s alternative wave of the early/mid 1980s. Core members Ian Astbury (vocals), Billy Duffy (guitar) and Jamie Stewart (bass) were joined by a revolving door of drummers. The band quickly became a fan favorite in both America and Britain with “She Sells Sanctuary” off its second album, Love. The follow-up, the Rick Rubin-helmed Electric moved the band away from its alt roots and into the hard rock/heavy metal mainstream. It reached #38 and effectively bridged the gap between the alternative and commercial hard rock worlds.

Electric was followed by 1989’s Sonic Temple, produced by Bob Rock (whose engineering/producing resume included many successful mainstream artists including Survivor, Loverboy, Bon Jovi, Kingdom Come, Krokus and Aerosmith, among many others), Sonic Temple was a top-ten, platinum smash that moved the band into bona fide arena headliner status. It seemed that The Cult had finally made the big time.

The band’s reign at the top was short lived: The first crack in the facade was the sudden departure of Jamie Stewart in 1990. Citing that he was fed up with the constant stress between Astbury and Duffy, he quit the band and was not replaced. Around the same time, touring drummer Matt Sorum jumped ship to join Guns ‘n’ Roses, replacing drug-addled drummer Steven Adler.

The Cult, now reduced to the duo, were faced with these challenges in creating the follow-up to Sonic Temple. In addition, Bob Rock, whose production was an integral part of Sonic Temple’s success, went on to produce two heavy metal classics, both of which peaked at #1 and sold millions of units, Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood and Metallica’s Metallica (a.k.a the Black Album).

Both the Crue and Metallica albums were hits commercially (both peaked at #1) and produced hit singles and hit videos; both bands toured successfully on the strength of the albums. Metallica’s album featured particularly grueling recording sessions, stretching from October 1990 through June 1991, putting Rock out of contention for producing the follow-up to Sonic Temple.

The band elected to use Richie Zito, producer of hits such as Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” and Bad English’s “When I See You Smile,” a move that no doubt alienated their fan base. Released on September 24, 1991 (the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind), the band found the marketplace had changed since their last release – it was not very receptive to bands from the 1980s. Instead of a top-ten and platinum success, it settled for a gold album (500,000 units sold) and a peak of #25 in Billboard.

The music on Ceremony? For one thing it lacked the Bob Rock vibe that Sonic Temple benefited from. (Listen to Dr. Feelgood and Metallica a.k.a. The Black Album to hear what Rock brought to these bands.) Instead of going for Rock’s high-gloss sheen, it clearly went for the radio-friendly sound that Zito was famous for.

After Ceremony’s release, things only got worse for The Cult. The band was playing much smaller venues in support of the album; the lack of album sales and concert tickets only furthered the problems between Astbury and Duffy; finally, the family of the Native American boy on the cover of the album (and in the “Wild Hearted Son” video) sued the band and its record companies (Sire in Europe; WB in North America) for $61 million. (The case was eventually thrown out of court.)

The Cult never recovered from the downward slide that Ceremony started. Although the music isn’t a huge departure from the sound that the band was known for, the sterile, commercial production and band in-fighting, burnout and a changing musical landscape all took their toll and led to the band’s dissolutions after the next album. Although the band has since reformed, no albums released since have charted higher than #37 – 12 positions lower than Ceremony’s peak chart position in America. (Note: A UK only compilation, Pure Cult, released in 1993, peaked at #1 in the UK charts.)

Vital Stats: 

  • Artist: The Cult
  • Album: Ceremony
  • Label: Beggars Banquet
  • Producer: Richie Zito
  • Released: September 1991
  • Billboard Peak Chart Position: #25

Skyscraper -David Lee Roth

skyscraperblogphotoSkyscraper was David Lee Roth’s second full album as a solo artist, the follow up to to his solo debut, 1986’s successful Eat ‘Em And Smile. It was also the last to feature the original “Eat ’em and Smile” band, as bassist Billy Sheehan departed shortly after the album was finished.

Following Van Halen’s monster 1984 album (and a #1 single, Jump), DLR went through a public (and quite nasty) mid-1985 divorce from the band. Both acts carried on – Van Halen snagged vocalist Sammy Hagar, while Roth went with “the best band money could buy;” guitarist Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette.

Many industry big shots put their money on Roth to be the more successful of the two, as they felt it was impossible for a band to replace such an iconic frontman. Plus, Van Halen’s management, crew and producer all stuck with Dave, so it seemed like they, as insiders, knew where the talent really was.

Round one ended in a draw: Both acts released successful albums and played arena tours in 1986; Van Halen sold more units, but they were considered “poppier” than before and had multiple hit singles (without videos, no less!) from their album, 5150. By early 1988, it was time for both acts to follow up.

Roth struck first withSkyscraper. This time around, he disposed of producer Ted Templeman (who produced all of the Roth-era Van Halen as well asEat ‘Em And Smile) and self-produced the album with guitarist Steve Vai. The result was a less unified, synth-heavy, cold sounding album that was too high-tech for most of his fan base. Although it spawned a top ten single (“Just Like Paradise” peaked at #6 in Billboard) and a couple of album rock tracks (“Damn Good” and “Stand Up”), it didn’t hold up in the long run. 

This was the album that broke the spell of David Lee Roth. The first crack in the façade was when bassist Billy Sheehan left the band post-album but pre-tour. (He was replaced on stage by drummer Gregg Bissonette’s brother, Matt.) Although it seemed like a minor detail at the time, it sent a loud and clear message out publicly: Being in Dave’s band is NOT the coolest gig in town anymore. Making it more painful, Sheehan didn’t even stick around long enough for the “Just Like Paradise” video. He then founded Mr. Big, whose first album came out in late 1989.

More dissonance occurred concerning the single; Steve Vai, who co-wrote the majority of Roth’s first two albums (but not “Paradise”), loathed the song (although this wasn’t common knowledge at the time). Additionally, having secured the high-profile gig with Roth, he became a known as an A-list guitarist and his name was out there for future projects. (More on that later.) But Vai, being the consummate professional, appeared in the “Just Like Paradise” video and completed the tour.

Once again, David Lee Roth embarked on a successful arena tour, supported at various times in the states by Faster Pussycat and Poison. Poison’s popularity exploded during the tour, and by the end of 1988, they were headlining arenas on their own. Some fans grumbled that his setlist routinely covered only four classic Van Halen tunes on his 1988 tour. (Five if you count “You Really Got Me.”) The US leg commenced in March (Lakeland, FL) and finished in August (Troy, MI). The international leg included Western Europe, Japan and Australia.

Meanwhile, Van Halen released OU812, their second Sammy-fronted album in May, and it replicated the 5150 chart position of #1, its several hit singles and a successful tour, though marred by the controversial “Monsters of Rock” traveling stadium festival. So once again, Dave wasn’t able to upstage his former band.

But in the end, the album was a letdown for the fans of Eat ‘Em And Smile and it marked the end of the Roth dynasty. After the tour, Steve Vai would jump ship (eventually replacing Vivian Campbell in the now-huge Whitesnake), a second blow DLR’s career would never recover from.

Roth’s next album, 1991’s A Little Ain’t Enough (recorded with guitarist Jason Becker) was far less successful and produced no memorable singles (or videos); the follow-up tour paired him with openers the downward-trending Cinderella (ironically an opener on the Eat ‘Em And Smile campaign now on a downward trajectory after their own arena-headlining tour) and newcomers Extreme, before being scrapped for overall apathy.

Meanwhile, Van Halen hit #1 for a third time with their 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (and accompanying tour); and for the first time in this rivalry, Van Halen produced the better-known video (“Right Now”) of the pairing.

It was all downhill from there for Dave, who never again regained a foothold on rock’s A-list, despite pairing up with Eddie and Alex Van Halen many years later.

Vital Stats: 

  • Artist: David Lee Roth
  • Album: Skyscraper
  • Label: Warner Bros.
  • Producer: David Lee Roth, Steve Vai
  • Released: January 1988
  • Billboard Peak Chart Position: #6